By Gary Robbins
A packed house at Stone Memorial High School saw the Panthers continue their post-sason play in a Region 3AAA match-up against District 5AAA's fourth-place team, the Ooltewah Owls, and come away with an 82-71 win.
The win vaulted the Panthers into Tuesday night's semifinal game against District 5AAA runner-up Cleveland, which defeated White County in another region contest.
Bradley Central plays Walker Valley in the other semi-final at 6 p.m. The Bears beat Cookeville, while the Mustangs defeated the CCHS Jets. The two Tuesday winners advance into the championship game Thursday at 7 p.m. and into the substate round March 3.
Tyler Yoder controtted the opening tip, with Justin Simmons taking an ally oop pass from Gage Spence for an early lead and never looked back.
SMHS' Big 3 - Simmons, Luke Matthews and Yoder - all have scholarships waiting, but have their intentions to make a post-season run.
Matthews stole the ball for a lay-up for a 4-0 advantage, but Ooltewah's Ron King answered with a three bomb.
Simmons played big inside and had some big stops, including a blocked shot, as SMHS jumped out to an 8-3 lead with 3:19 left in the opening period.
Yoder hauled down an offensive rebound for two points and a 10-5 advantage and finished the quarter with a 12-8 lead.
Matthews took charge in the second period to give SMHS the ball back for a 16-11 lead with six minutes remaining in the half.
Collin Russell added some key minutes off the bench to rest the starters and scored on three straight trips down the floor. He was fouled on two of his shots and added eight points in a just a few minutes. His baskets helped the Panthers build their lead to 28-18 with 3:22 left in the half.
Ooltewah went on a 5-0 run to cut the lead to seven (28-21), before Simmons went hurt to the hole, was fouled and hit one of two free throws. Yoder then drained a trey to push the lead to 11 (34-23), as neither team was able to score in the closing seconds of the half.
The Panthers worked hard on both ends of the court. Brandon Thomas got a tip off of a miss to keep the ball alive, but Yoder stuck it back in to cause an Owl timeout with 5:28 left in the third period with SMHS ahead 40-28.
Simmons again made a strong move down low for a basket, was fouled, but missed the free throw; however, SMHS led 44-30 with 4:50 left in the third quarter.
Thomas hit a three to make it 51-35 with three minutes left, but the Owls made four three-pointers to keep them close at 53-45 with 1:30 to go in the quarter.
Matthews converted two free throws with 3.9 seconds left for a 58-51 advantage, as the fourth period started.
Simmons continued to take it to the Owls, who had a size advantage, to free himself to add to the Panther lead.
Russell was whistled for a technical foul, allowing the Owls to convert two free throws to slice the lead to 60-56 with 7:10 left in the game.
Mitch Ball came off the bench and hit two free throws to make it 64-59 with 6:30 remaining in the game. Yoder hit a key basket to force another Ooltewah timeout with SMHS ahead 66-59 with 5:28 left on the clock.
Simmons was fouled as he went down low and converted one of two free throws, but was unable to come up with the offensive rebound to keep possession for the Panthers.
Gage Spence was fouled and converted the one-plus-one to give SMHS a 69-61 lead.
The Owls' Ben Snyder was fouled on a three-point attempt and converted the three free throws to slice the gap to 69-64 with 4:27 left in the game.
Yoder countered, converting one of two free throws for a 70-64 advantage. Thomas made a nice pass to Gage Spence, who went back door for a layup with 2:50 left for a 74-66 lead.
Ooltewah stayed close with another trey, but SMHS still led 77-69, after two free throws by Yoder with under two minutes left in the game.
Spence hit two more free throws to make it 80-71 with 1:08 left.
The Panthers were 20 of 27 from the charity stripe on the night.
Coach Neil Capps called timeout with 43 seconds left. Simmons nailed two free throws for the final score of 82-71.
Yoder led the Panthers with 26 points, followed by Simmons (17), Spence (13), Thomas (8), Russell (8), Matthews (6) and Ball (4).