High School Boys Basketball

From strangers to brothers, Panthers end historic season one for all

By Dennis Silva II, Sports Editor
Posted 3/5/21

ALDINE—Paetow started its 2020-2021 boys basketball season a team divided. It finished a family, a brotherhood in players’ parlance.

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High School Boys Basketball

From strangers to brothers, Panthers end historic season one for all

Posted

ALDINE—Paetow started its 2020-2021 boys basketball season a team divided. It finished a family, a brotherhood in players’ parlance.

What began as individuals hardly talking to each other in the locker room ended a cohesive unit making program history. The No. 20 state-ranked Panthers fell to No. 2 Beaumont United, 59-47, in the Class 5A Region III final on Friday evening in front of a raucous sold-out crowd at the Campbell Center. But in only its third year of varsity basketball play, Paetow went 23-2, was one game shy of making it to state and won an undefeated district championship.

Still, as substantial as the success on the court was, it was off the court where the Panthers ultimately found themselves.

“When we first started this season, we didn’t like each other,” coach Michael Niemi said, laughing. “We didn’t get along on the court, we didn’t gel. We struggled. You saw it in practice, you saw it in scrimmages, you saw it in our fall leagues. We lost that first game, and in the course of that journey to get where we are now … somewhere along the line we started to become a family.

“It became more about our teammate’s success than it did our own individual success.”

The Panthers were an eclectic mix of personalities and talents. They never found solid footing early, which resulted in a season-opening loss to Cypress Lakes. It didn’t help that Katy ISD’s shutdown because of COVID-19 canceled seven games and more than twice as many practices early in the season.

But something changed. Drastically. The goal, as it is for any ambitious high school basketball team, was to make it to state. But the Panthers weren’t just willing to talk about it. They worked for it, especially once they saw what they were capable of.

“At first, we wouldn’t even talk to each other in the locker room. It wasn’t normal,” senior guard Brian McKnight said. “But we started gelling and that’s how our success came, off the court. When you step on the court, and that’s your family, you’re going to play your heart out for your family. This became more than just a team to us.”

The Panthers understood if they wanted to maximize what they had, they had to learn to play together. That started with making a genuine effort to get to know and learn each other off the court, and sacrificing an open shot for themselves for a better shot for a teammate on it.

Paetow hit that epiphany of sorts during the second half of district play, and it drove them during a remarkable postseason run.

“We believed in everything we were working for and playing for,” junior guard Trevor Frank said. “We started to see what we could do. Look at the outcome. We tried.”

Paetow played admirably against undefeated United. The Panthers trailed 14-7 after the first quarter before outscoring United, 18-10, in the second and taking a one-point lead into halftime.

Because his team was having difficulty containing dribble penetration, Niemi dialed up pressure in the second quarter and it paid off. Frank had a pair of steals, and he and junior reserve Idy Igbaroola combined for 13 points in the period.

But in the third quarter, United unleashed its fury. Junior 6-foot-7 wing Terrance Arceneaux scored 10 points with seven rebounds in the period, and the Timberwolves outscored the Panthers, 23-9, in the quarter, thanks to a persistent attack to the basket, earning 11 free-throw attempts and making nine.

United simply had too much size and athleticism, especially with Paetow’s 6-foot-9 star junior post Charles Chukwu missing most of the second and third quarters in foul trouble before fouling out two minutes into the fourth.

The Timberwolves did not have a starter shorter than 6-foot-1. They used their size and physicality to their advantage, particularly in the second half. After attempting eight 3s in the first half, making one, United attempted just three more the rest of the game.

Overall, United made 20 of 36 free throws to Paetow’s 6-of-14, and won the rebounding edge, 42-25.

“It was a consistency over the game as far as not doing the little things good enough,” Niemi said. “We came out the last game against Goose Creek Memorial and really sat down defensively. Tonight, I don’t think we accomplished that. We let them get by us too easily. We moved late into position, which forced us to foul. We gave up a lot of offensive rebounds and didn’t do enough blocking out or body-to-body contact.”

“We didn’t quit,” said Frank, who had a team-high 17 points to go with four steals and three rebounds. “We kept putting pressure … we tried to make shots, we tried to outrebound them, we tried to break their press. We tried. We played together, and we tried.”

Senior guard Khi Watkins added nine points for Paetow. Igbaroola finished with seven points and six rebounds.

Arceneaux had a game-high 19 points and 15 rebounds, and it was his aggressiveness in the third quarter that turned the game in United’s favor.

Niemi took a lot from how his team lost.

“It’s great to see that growth, where we didn’t care for each other at the beginning and now they’re in the locker room crying and weeping because they’re missing what they’ve had and put so much value into,” he said. “They love each other now. We lost as a family, and you can’t look past something like that.”

While the Panthers were devastated afterward, the meaning of their season was not lost upon them.

“To lose in the second round last year and come back all the way to the fifth round, it’s something special,” senior guard Jayden McCullough said.

McCullough, McKnight, forward Everett Marlatt and post Kameron Spanburg were sophomores on the inaugural Paetow varsity basketball team two years ago. That year, the Panthers went 11-20 overall, but 6-8 in district and one win shy of the playoffs. The year after, they broke out, going 26-8 and winning a co-district championship and a playoff game.

This year, they put the Greater Houston area hoops scene on notice.

“We made history, we set a standard for this program,” McKnight said. “It puts a smile on our faces to take a new school that nobody believed in or knew and make everyone believers. It’s a great feeling to prove people wrong, when people thought we wouldn’t make it this far”

They did, however.

“We’re all brothers,” Frank said. “We love each other. As the season went on, we became closer and closer more than we ever were at the beginning. Nothing could separate us.

“It didn’t work out, but we’re going to come back harder than ever next year. Our confidence is through the roof. This feeling is something we don’t want ever again. We’ll come back harder. It’s going to be scary.”

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