As recently as last week, Paetow boys basketball coach Michael Niemi had not been pleased with his team’s defense.
TOMBALL — As recently as last week, Paetow boys basketball coach Michael Niemi had not been pleased with his team’s defense.
The Panthers had a tendency to play undisciplined and lose focus for stretches. But when it has mattered most, it’s been defense that has carried them to the regional semifinals of the Class 5A playoffs.
After squeaking out a six-point win and holding Pflugerville Weiss to 43 points in the area round just three days earlier, Paetow stifled Kingwood Park in its regional quarterfinal Friday at Tomball High School, earning a gritty 42-39 win to continue its program-best season.
Paetow (22-1) held Park (25-3) to 16 points in the second half. Park had almost as many turnovers (14) as field goals (17).
“I’ll be perfectly honest, they’ve been pissing me off all year with their defense,” Niemi said of his team. “But these last two games, we’ve proved we can sit down in a slow, grind-it game, and get defensive stops and secure enough boards to allow us to have possession. I couldn’t be prouder of this team from a defensive standpoint.”
Paetow led 38-32, the biggest lead for either team in the game, in the fourth quarter before Park rallied back with a 3-pointer by Kyle Conmelly and a steal-and-bucket by Brendan Tynan.
Paetow led 40-39 in the closing seconds, but junior guard Trevor Frank uncharacteristically missed a pair of free throws. Park had opportunities to take the lead on the ensuing possessions, but jumpers by Jack Keller and Cooper Ward went long.
With 3.1 seconds left, Paetow senior guard Brian McKnight, who’d committed two crucial turnovers just moments before to give Park life, was fouled and knocked in two free throws.
Park’s last-ditch flail attempt at a three-quarters-length shot was well short.
“I knew I had to redeem myself,” said McKnight, who had six points and seven rebounds. “I had two careless turnovers with the ball. I just got up there to the line … I have so much confidence in myself, I believe in myself and I knew I’d hit those two free throws. I love that moment.”
Added Niemi: “He knows he screwed up with those two turnovers. He’s one of our better ballhandlers, he’s always solid with it, but for him to make those mistakes and turn around and make those two free throws … he knew he had to step up big and he did. It shows a lot of heart on his part.”
While Park couldn’t get anything going offensively, Paetow didn’t fare much better. Paetow missed 10 of 11 3-point attempts and five of 12 free throws.
“We had to stay solid on defense. We couldn’t worry about offense,” said junior center Charles Chukwu, who had a game-high 13 points, eight rebounds and three blocks. “Shots weren’t going in, and we played defense and stuck together as a team. That’s what got us through this one.”
Park, generally a sharpshooting unit, missed 18 of 22 3-point attempts and all five of its free throws. The low number of free throw attempts allowed was another sign of Paetow’s improved defensive effort.
Park’s star guard, the senior Keller, scored only 11 points, five in the second half.
“Our primary focus is defense,” McKnight said. “Defense, defense, defense. Defense wins championships, and our coach preaches that to us every day. We took away their flare screens, took away the driving lanes. We had heavy help. We ran them off the 3-point line. We didn’t let them get going.”
Senior guard Khi Watkins added eight points and seven rebounds for Paetow.
Niemi said he’s eager to see what his team can do against either Crosby or Goose Creek Memorial in the next round. Both are teams that love to play uptempo and press, and he’s hoping his offense can rejuvenate itself, particularly in transition.
But the Panthers are playing winning playoff basketball, showing that even when the 3s and dunks aren’t available, the defense and toughness is.
“We’re playing the best basketball we’ve played in the last two years,” senior guard Jayden McCullough said.
And because of it, the legacy, which is how McCullough defined it, is still under construction.
“It’s is exciting. It’s nerve-wracking. It’s amazing,” Chukwu said. “It’s a whole bunch of feelings. We’re just trying to make this run go as long as it can.”