High School Basketball

Skilled, athletic and deep, Panthers secure outright district title

By Dennis Silva II, Sports Editor
Posted 2/6/21

All season long, No. 1 on the list of goals for the Paetow boys basketball team was to win the District 19-5A title outright. Last year, the Panthers shared the championship with A&M Consolidated.

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High School Basketball

Skilled, athletic and deep, Panthers secure outright district title

Posted

All season long, No. 1 on the list of goals for the Paetow boys basketball team was to win the District 19-5A title outright. Last year, the Panthers shared the championship with A&M Consolidated.

They were intent on being more selfish this season.

“Last year, it was good to win, but we just didn’t like sharing it,” senior guard Brian McKnight said. “Our main goal was to go undefeated and win district. We haven’t taken it easy during practices. We go after each other, hard, all the time, make each other better. That’s why we’re able to play as a team and just win.”

Following a 66-49 drubbing of Bryan Rudder in their final home game of the season on Saturday, Feb. 6, the Panthers are 17-1 overall, 12-0 in district play. They won the district title outright the previous night in a 63-50 win over Magnolia West.

“I feel this really solidifies where we are as a team,” senior forward/center Charles Chukwu said. “We’ve really improved from last year.”

The Panthers are in first place in district by a four-game margin. Like last season, Paetow is skilled, athletic, quick and deep. The difference this season has come in experience and younger players assuming more significant roles.

“A lot of older guys left and a lot of younger guys had to become leaders,” Chukwu said. “It was challenging at times, but we find a way to get things done.”

Chukwu added that the Panthers were not without motivation.

“It was a chance to prove the haters wrong,” he said. “Before the season started, we weren’t picked to even win district, so I feel like this proves a lot to whoever didn’t believe in us.”

The Panthers have been impressively dominant despite dealing with their share of adversity. Head coach Michael Niemi missed a handful of games earlier this season dealing with COVID-19. Junior starting guard E.J. Roberts recently tore his ACL and is out for the season.

Still, Paetow keeps rolling. It’s the next-man-up routine, whether it’s lead assistant coach Chuck Arnold stepping in or players like McKnight and senior guard Khi Watkins stepping up.

“My guys are competing at a high level,” Niemi said. “Last year’s group, everything was so fresh and new, so there was a lot of emotion tied to last year. This year, they have that experience. Having playoff experience, district championship experience, and the understanding that we wanted to win it outright and not share it, all of that has paid huge dividends.”

McKnight said the Panthers understand how good they are, but still have a knack for playing down to competition.

That was never more apparent than against Bryan Rudder. Paetow trailed 10-6 early and only led by five, 32-27, at halftime against a Rangers team that is just 5-7 in 19-5A. The Panthers were lethargic and sloppy.

And then the second half happened, and all was forgiven as Paetow re-established itself. The Panthers outscored the Rangers, 19-10, in the third quarter, forcing eight turnovers and holding Rudder to two field goals.

In all, Paetow held Rudder to 22 total points in the second half against 18 turnovers.

Offensively, Paetow never got much going consistently aside from a furious run of easy transition buckets, highlighted by two fun Chukwu slams, off turnovers in the third quarter. Only two Panthers scored in double figures (Watkins with 16 and junior forward Idy Igbaroola with 11), but Paetow’s quality depth showed off. Three other Panthers each scored six points, and 12 Panthers total found their way into the scoring column.

“When we flip the switch and we turn it on, no team can compete with us,” McKnight said. “When we play as a team, we’re one of the top teams in the state.”

With two games left in the district season and the playoffs looming right around the corner, Niemi said it’s important his team sees the big picture at this point of the season. An undefeated district season likely awaits, and then, hopefully, the regional finals and a shot at a state tournament berth.

“We feel like we still have a lot more to achieve and we’re just scratching the surface,” Chukwu said. “If we get to where we want to be, we can be really special.”

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