By Ed Greif
Justin Simmons buried two free throws with 1.8 seconds left in the game to give the Panthers 59-57 victory over the Cleveland Blue Raiders to earn a berth in Thursday night's Region 3AAA championship game and a spot in Monday night's substate.
"The kids played hard. They handled adversity. Cleveland is a great team. They are well-coached. We have to be able to win an ugly game," said Panther coach Neil Capps, whose team played Walker Valley in the championship game.
Walker Valley defeated Bradley Central in the other boys semi-final Tuesday evening.
Simmons scored 10 first-quarter points to give the Panthers an 18-7 advantage with under 1:30 remaining, but Kendrick Thompson scored the final two buckets for the Blue Raiders to slice the gap to 18-11 by quarter's end.
Tyler Yoder and Brandon Thomas scored four points each for the Panthers, who were nine of 15 from the field, while holding Cleveland to five of 17 with four turnovers. Thompson tallied nine of his team's 11 markers.
The large crowd at Cookeville High School saw the Blue Raiders use a 15-3 run to take a 26-21 lead with 4:14 left in the half, but a Gage Spence jumper helped the Panthers finish the half with a 6-2 run to slice the gap to 28-27 at the break.
Yoder had six second-quarter points for the Panthers, who were three of six from the field with five turnovers, while Cleveland was five of 10 from the floor and five of seven from the charity stripe. Thompson continued his torrid play with 11 points.
Cleveland stretched the lead to 36-32 with 4:36 left in the third quarter on a three-point play by Contrel Ware, but Simmons scored the Panthers' next 13 points to give SMHS a 46-39 advantage late in the third quarter.
A three-point by Jake Gibson and six points by Thompson gave the Raiders a 48-46 lead by quarter's end.
After Cleveland took a 51-48 advantage, the SMHS students started yelling "lets go Panthers, let's go Panthers," which sparked Panthers to take a 53-51 lead with 3:20 left in the game.
Thompson buried four straight free throws to tie the game at 55-55 with 2:29 remaining in the game.
After a time-out, SMHS held the ball, but gave it back to the Blue Raiders with 26.2 seconds left. Anfernee Scott converted a layup with 8.8 seconds left to tie the game at 57-57.
SMHS worked for a final shot. Simmons hit the deck going for a lay-up, but the officials conferred the Panther senior was fouled and awarded him two free throws with 1.8 seconds left. The tosses were good, giving the Panthers the lead.
The Cleveland pass down the court was knocked away, giving SMHS the win.
Leading the way for the Panthers were Spence (four points, seven assists, one steal), Yoder (18 points, three rebounds, two steals), Brandon Thomas (five points, one rebound, one assist), Simmons (28 points, three rebounds) and Luke Matthews (five points, one rebound, five steals). Mitch Ball and Parker Hill also played.