“I came in three years ago and those guys who are seniors now embraced me and embraced what I was trying to do,” Niemi said. “They embraced everything about what we are and the identity that we have."
Paetow doesn’t know the word quit.
The Panthers had a number of opportunities where a different team would have given up Friday, having things they were forced to overcome both on and off the court.
But every time they faced that adversity, the Panthers responded, fighting back and making things a game against Crosby in the regional semifinals.
But in the end, the Panthers fight wasn’t enough, as they fell 72-68 to Crosby, despite nearly overcoming a double-digit deficit I the fourth quarter.
“They’re a stubborn bunch, but in a good way,” said Paetow head coach Mike Niemi. “They’re just competitors, this is probably one of the most competitive basketball team’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of coaching. We butted heads at times and there was a lot of pushing each other, but at the end of the day, they started getting out there in the second half, making plays. This is not a team or program that’s going to give up in any moment. We just didn’t do enough early, and even with the fight, we couldn’t get over the hump.”
Early in the game it was a struggle for Paetow, as the Panthers fell behind by six points in the first quarter. The Panthers came out strong in the second, taking leads at two different points, but Crosby had the response and killed any momentum Paetow had by going on runs as the Cougars took a 36-30 lead into halftime.
“In the first half, we weren’t getting enough defensive stops,” Niemi said. We were allowing too many easy plays where they would just go by us and we weren’t rebounding on defense the way we usually do to get out in transition. We didn’t execute and we were taking a lot of what we call ‘me shots.’ At halfime we emphasized what got us to this point was moving the ball and looking and plaing for each other. What you saw in the second half was us doing that. That’s what had got us here, but early on we weren’t doing it.”
Paetow tried to get back into things in the fourth but it was a hard grind for the Panthers to claw back. Every time the Panthers trimmed the lead, the Cougars came right back to push it back to a comfortable advantage. A big reason for this was PJ Haggerty, who had 43 point on the night, including going 25 of 29 from the free throw line, providing Crosby with buckets anytime the team needed it.
“PJ showed why he’s considered probably the best scoring guard in the Houston area,” Niemi said. “He’s really tough to play against, he’s a hard guard for anyone and late in the game he showed up with huge shots and free throws.”
Paetow trimmed the defecit to two late in the fourth quarter but Crosby hit their free throws to close things out.
The Panthers will graduate seven players, including multiple Division I players this year, and for Niemi, who became head coach of the program three years ago, it’s a tough pill to swallow.
“I came in three years ago and those guys who are seniors now embraced me and embraced what I was trying to do,” Niemi said. “They embraced everything about what we are and the identity that we have. Those guys had 81 wins over three years, that’s just tremendous. I have nothing but gratitude for those guys.”
Though the Panthers season ended in the regional semifinals, it shows how strong of a program Paetow has become that they have made it two straight years to the regional tournament. Niemi knows that having the younger players on the team experience and understand the big moments is s big part to building a successful program.
“Those guys who are younger, they get to see what big players do in big moments,” Niemi said. “They can see how competitive this is, how difficult it is to get here. They understand how every possession can change everything and how high of a level this is. Losing by a few possessions in a game like that, where we could have gone down by 15 or 20, it showed them what players are supposed to do in those big moments. Now they just have to work to replicate it.”
Class 5A Regional Semifinal
Crosby 72, Paetow 68
Points: (P) EJ Roberts 21, Trevor Frank 13, Charles Chukwu 10, Idy Igbaroola 7, Kam Ingram 7, Abou Camara 5, Ade Onaleye 5; (C) 43, Sean Elkinton 13, Zachias Davis 4, Trey Baldwin 4, Isaac Hill 3, Austin Jones 3
Halftime: Crosby 36-30; 3-Pointers: (P) Frank 3, Roberts 2, Igbaroola, Onaleye; (C) Elkinton 3, Jones, Hill; Records: Paetow 31-6; Crosby 21-11
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