Heading into year three at the helm of the Eastbrook boys basketball program, Greg Allison knew right away that this version of the Panthers could be special.
Despite winning just four games over the last two years, along with an ongoing global pandemic, the players made it their mission to come into the 2020-2021 season with a new mentality. They worked tirelessly on honing their craft, growing together with one another, and most importantly, learning how to win.
Highs and lows marked their home and season opener against Southern Wells on Tuesday night. The Panthers started strong and built a double-digit lead, only to see it evaporate in the second and third quarters.
However, Eastbrook never wavered. They continued to battle, and when the final buzzer rang, the Panthers stood victorious, defeating the Raiders 67-58 for their first win of the season.
Every Panthers who saw the floor on Tuesday evening made positive contributions. Jaxson VanBelkum—who showed flashes of his ability last year—flourished on the offensive end, scoring 19 points. In the first half, he shot four-of-five, including all three of his attempts from the perimeter, and added eight points in the fourth quarter.
“He started hot, which really helped us,” Allison said. “He is a really good shooter, and he played really well.”
Braxton Bowser recorded a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds, while Jett Engle finished with 11, including four clutch free throws in the final 37 seconds of the contest.
However, the player of the game was sophomore guard Levi McElhaney, whose tenacious play on both ends of the floor in the fourth quarter helped the Panthers regain control of the contest in the final 5:33. Of his 14 points, nine came in the final stanza.
“I’m so proud of these guys,” Allison said. “I told them [in the locker room] that this is the start of a new group, of a new wave of basketball here. In previous years, I don’t think my team wins that game. It’s nothing that I did – it’s everything that the kids did.
“I’m just so proud. I’m just so happy for them.”
The Panthers came out firing, shooting nine-of-17 in the first quarter and grabbing the early 22-11 advantage. Eastbrook, along with shooting the ball well, got after it defensively, forcing six first quarter turnovers.
Eastbrook looked to have the game in hand late in the second quarter, but the Raiders began to push back, asserting themselves on the boards and collecting a plethora of second chance opportunities. After leading 30-13 with 2:33 remaining in the first half, the Raiders headed into the locker room on a 12-1 run, trimming the Panthers lead to 31-28 at the halftime break. Additionally, the Panthers struggled at the free-throw line, making just four of their 13 attempts.
The Raiders continued to cut into Eastbrook’s advantage in the third quarter little by little, eventually taking their first lead at 39-38 with just over 1:30 to play in the stanza. Southern Wells led 47-42 in the waning seconds, but Bryce Dmyszewicz’s lone three of the evening turned out to be an important one, trimming the Raiders’ lead to 47-45 heading into the fourth quarter.
Eastbrook dominated the final eight minutes, and McElaheny was the catalyst. After VanBelkum tied the contest at 49-49 on a pair of made free throws, McElaheny connected on his second triple of the night, putting the Panthers ahead for good. Later in the frame, the sophomore scored, recorded a steal on the defensive end, and scored again, putting the Panthers up 58-51 with 2:14 remaining.
The Raiders never got closer than four points the rest of the way.
“It shows a lot about our kids,” Allison said. “Things didn’t go their way. We didn’t necessarily end the second quarter well. We didn’t really play the third quarter all that well. But they kept coming. That shows a lot about the character of our kids.”
The Panthers, after a woeful first half from the charity stripe, were nearly automatic in the fourth quarter, knocking down 10 of their 11 attempts, including their final six.
As a team, Eastbrook shot 24-of-55 (43 percent) from the field and six-of-19 (31 percent) from beyond the arc. Defensively, the Panthers held Southern Wells to 24-of-60 (40 percent) from the floor.
Here at the start of their season, the Panthers recognize that there is plenty to be proud about, but likewise there is plenty of work yet to be done.
“I think it’s huge for our kids to recognize that their hard work is paying off,” Allison said. “They worked. They listened. They try to do what we ask. They busted their butts in the offseason, as crazy as an offseason we had.
“I think success is coming for this group. But we’ve got to handle it in a positive way.”