From their very first practice back in mid-November until Saturday night at The Panther Den, the Eastbrook Panthers faced a plethora of adversity.
They lost all three of their top scorers from a season ago, and right off the bat, it took time for them to establish an identity.
After the first few weeks, the Panthers found that identity – a team that played outstanding defense night in and night out – but they could not replicate that success on offense.
There were many nights where they shot under 30 percent from the floor. There were nights where they finished with field goal numbers in the single digits. They struggled at the free-throw line. Their confidence waned. They would build leads in the fourth quarter only to see them evaporate.
And heading into sectional play, nobody gave the Panthers much of a chance.
But while many on the outside may have doubted them, there was one man who knew what this group was capable of if they just believed in themselves – Head Coach Jeff Liddick.
Even through the tough losses and rough performances that seemed to pile up, he always made it known that he believed in his team. He pushed them, encouraged them, and challenged them. The kids continued to put in the work, coming in every day and putting shots up while simultaneously improving their skill sets.
And just in time for the playoffs, the Panthers finally saw in themselves what Liddick had seen in them all along.
“The lightbulb went off last week – something clicked,” Liddick said. “They figured out they were a good basketball team. We’ve been telling them all season long that this is the type of team [they] could be. Last week, they finally figured out that we weren’t lying to them.”
Coming off of their thrilling victory over Tipton in the semi-final round, Liddick and the Panthers knew they had another tremendous test awaiting them on Saturday night.
Taylor, boasting a bevy of tremendous offensive players, was the favorite to win Sectional 39. After a first round bye, they took care of business against an improved Blackford Bruins squad, winning by 18.
Earlier in the season, the Panthers played the Titans right before Christmas, scoring just 31 points in a 15-point loss.
But the Eastbrook team that took the floor on Saturday in the Sectional 39 championship was a much different team. A more confident team.
A better team.
And for 36 minutes, the Panthers played with poise, assurance, and most importantly, a belief in one another, capturing their first sectional championship since 2016 with a 35-31 overtime triumph over the Titans.
“It’s hard to describe. It means a lot,” Eastbrook shooting guard Rachel Manning said after the game. “We faced some hardships at the beginning…but being here today just shows how much love and trust has grown between this group of girls.”
And there was plenty of difficulty. Shot did not always fall. On a few occasions, the defense slipped up, allowing the Titans to have a wide open shot from the perimeter. Leading by three late in the fourth quarter, they gave up the tying basket in the final minute of play, and in overtime, some missed free throws allowed Taylor to take the lead.
But through all of that, the Panthers kept their composure. They did not doubt themselves, nor did they allow the moment to become too big for them.
“I told them tonight, I said, ‘You are going to face some adversity. Some bad things are going to happen. And you can respond one of two ways. You can feel sorry for yourself for that adversity, or you can stand up to it, nose to nose, and punch it back in the face,’” Liddick said. “That’s what they did all night long.”
They just continued to play their game for their coach, for their school, and for each other, and the result was a hard-fought, and well-deserved, sectional championship.
“Words can’t describe how I feel right now,” Liddick said. “I think all season long, as a team, we haven’t been given a lot of credit. I’m just so happy for the girls. We talked about it at the beginning of the season – this team is capable of being a conference champion. This team is capable of being a Grant Four champion. And this team is capable of being a sectional champion.
“They finally figured it out. I’m so happy for this group. They’ve put in so many minutes on the court to get better. They take coaching extremely well. They love one another, and it definitely showed tonight.”
Right from the opening tip, the Panthers were locked in. They opened the contest shooting three-of-five from the field, building a 7-0 lead at the 5:23 mark of the first quarter. Lexi Binkerd scored a couple of tough baskets in the post, while Manning hit a three following a Titans’ turnover. Then, a short time later, Kristin Goff, who has been tremendous throughout the second half of the season, knocked down her first field goal to increase Eastbrook’s lead to 9-2.
Three months ago, the Panthers were not hitting those shots, much less taking them due to a lack of confidence. But in the game’s early stages, Eastbrook proved that were a much more cohesive unit than they were back then.
“I just think we connected,” Eastbrook point guard Johwen McKim said. “[Earlier this season,] we just didn’t have the basketball IQ and the connection we needed to win bigger games. But after the Blackford game, something clicked, and we just started playing together. We had everybody scoring and contributing. We all just started executing on offense and defense. We started playing for each other, not for ourselves.”
Taylor eventually found their sea legs, scoring eight straight to take a brief one-point advantage, but McKim’s first field goal of the game gave the Panthers an 11-10 lead after the first eight minutes.
The two teams combined for just two baskets early in the second quarter, but in the final 4:19 of the first half, there was a scoring flurry. Brianna Stepp hit a three to increase the Panthers’ advantage to four at 16-12, but Taylor’s Kelsi Langley responded with a three of her own to trim the lead back down to one point. Shauna Singer and Langley traded baskets to make it 18-17, but when the Panthers needed to create some separation, Goff answered the bell, scoring five straight points to give Eastbrook a 23-17 lead at the halftime break.
“We just all started trusting each other more and loving each other,” Singer said. “We just believed in one another, so we just had a lot more confidence in ourselves.”
While the scoring grinded to a halt for the Panthers in the third quarter, their defense was outstanding, as they held the Titans to just four points and one made field goal. McKim scored the Panthers’ only three points on a successful three-point play, giving the Panthers a 26-21 advantage heading into the final eight minutes.
“All season long, defensively, we’ve given ourselves a chance to win basketball games,” Liddick said. “We knew our defense would be stellar for us like it has been all year long. We didn’t do anything different – we just got after it on the defensive end. It was nothing special – just an all-out, gritty defensive effort.”
McKim opened the fourth quarter with a free throw, increasing Eastbrook’s lead to a game-high six points, but the Titans kept pushing, cutting the Panthers’ advantage to 29-26 with 5:19 to go.
The Panthers held that lead for the next near five minutes of game action, but with 49.6 seconds remaining, the Titans forced an Eastbrook turnover. Moments later after Taylor’s subsequent timeout, the Panthers lost containment on Emma Good, and the Titans’ sharpshooter made them pay, knocking down the game-tying three to force overtime.
But even though the Titans made a comeback and seemingly had the momentum, the Panthers were ready, and determined, to go out in the extra session and come out on top.
“The old Lady Panthers of three months ago going into that overtime probably would have had the mentality of, ‘You know what? We played four quarters really hard, but they came back and tied it up, so it doesn’t matter if we lose it or not,’” Liddick said. “This team, I could see it in their face before t the floor in that overtime [that] they were determined to come out of this thing with a victory.”
“There in the fourth quarter, things got a little bit hectic for a second. We were getting out of our head and getting a little bit frustrated,” Manning added. “I just said, ‘Hey, it’s okay. We’ve got to calm down and do it together. If we do it together, we’ll win.’ We really pulled together and did that.”
Langley opened the overtime period with a field goal, giving the Titans a 31-29 lead, but that would be end up being the last time Taylor would score.
With 1:57 remaining, McKim hit her second free throw of the game to cut the Titans’ advantage down to one, and 39 seconds later, she made the biggest play of the game.
Playing tight defense at the top of the key, McKim stole the ball and drove the length of the court. Calmly, the sophomore knocked down the transition layup to put the Panthers ahead for good.
“I don’t remember getting the steal. Honestly, I remember just playing intense defense because I knew we needed a stop,” McKim said. “I just stuck my hand out, and that ball hit me in the hand, and my next mindset was, ‘I have to hit this layup.’ I knew I had to finish that shot.”
The contest ultimately came down to free throw shooting, and at the most crucial point of the season, Manning delivered.
With two seconds remaining in the overtime period, Manning was fouled on a defensive rebound, and went to the charity stripe for a chance to put the game away.
“Rachel is a good free throw shooter. She hits them all the time in practice,” McKim said. “I just told her, ‘Rachel, you’ve got this. You do this all the time.’
And with the crowd roaring, her teammates cheering, and all of the pressure squarely on her shoulders, Manning hit both, putting the Panthers ahead by four and clinching the Sectional 39 championship.
“Right there, at that free throw line, I blocked everything else out,” [It was just] the basket, me, and the ball.”
They overcame all the odds. They stepped up in crunch time. And they showed everyone in attendance on Saturday night that they were absolutely deserving of being called a sectional champion.
The journey is not over, however. Rather, it has only begun. The Panthers will play in the regional tournament next Saturday, where they will face off with a familiar foe in CIC rival Frankton in the first semi-final.
“We have to keep playing together. We have to keep playing as a team. We have to keep playing with love and passion,” Manning said. “We are a passionate team. We have lots of energy, and when we have that energy, we do great things. We can’t get lazy. We can’t slow down. We have to have a great week of practice here, and keep looking for that next goal.”
Many will count them out again. And they would be foolish to do so.
Because right now, the Eastbrook Panthers are rolling, and they have no plans of stopping.
“We want to be playing out best basketball at tournament time, and we are,” Liddick said. “I challenged them in there. I said, ‘Nobody expected you guys to win this thing. I want you to enjoy this. Once you enjoy it this weekend, and when you come on in Monday, why stop there? Let’s go win a regional.’ I’ll think they’ll come in Monday geared up and ready to go.”
Goff led the Panthers with nine points against Taylor, seven of which came in the first half, while McKim ended the contest with eight. Manning and Singer each collected five points in Eastbrook’s victory.