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The Panthers managed to dodge a second-half scare from visiting Villa Madonna, hitting free throws late to secure a season-opening 59-51 victory Tuesday, Nov. 27, at home. They hit 20 of 26 free throws on the night.
Carroll jumped out to a big lead early, up 19-8 at the end of the first quarter. “I thought we came out, in the beginning of the game, really sharp, really playing well,” head coach Carroll Yager said.
The Panthers did a good job of sharing the basketball and looking for their teammates, Yager said. Brandon Stewart logged four of the team’s 10 assists, including one to a wide-open Dakota Corbin when Stewart was double-teamed on the block. Carroll extended their lead to 31-13 with under two minutes to go, but the Blue Lightning scored the last six points of the half on four free throws and a transition lay up by Andy Piccirillo, shifting the momentum in their favor.
Villa Madonna opened the second half hot, cutting the Panther lead in half to 31-25 and prompting a timeout from Yager two minutes in.
Stewart picked up his third personal foul with 4:26 to go, sending him to the bench. With the starting point guard out, the Blue Lightning turned up the defensive intensity, pressing on made baskets. “They put really good pressure on the ball, and we had to get used to getting strong with the ball in game situations,” Yager said. “That’s one of those things as we move through the season, we’ll get used to playing with contact and playing through it and not getting frustrated, keeping our heads.”
Villa Madonna cut the lead to four, 38-34, on a three-point play by Thomas Steinkoenig. The Blue Lightning player put a post move on Trey Boles, who was whistled for his third foul.
Carroll’s Jay Damron answered on the other end, hitting a bucket in the paint and drawing the foul. His free throw shot bounced off the rim, but was rebounded by Gibson who put it back in to give Carroll an eight-point cushion. Austin Crowell was fouled while setting a screen for Stewart on their next possession and stepped to the line and nailed both foul shots, 44-34 at the end of the third.
With under six minutes to go, Carroll still held a 10-point lead. Villa Madonna’s Cole Vonhandorfhit a jump shot, allowing his team to put on the press. The Panthers broke the press, but missed three straight shots in the paint. The Blue Lightning took advantage as Piccirillo hit a 3-pointer on the other end to cut the lead to five, 50-45.
Out of a timeout with 4:49 left, Stewart missed a jump shot and picked up his fourth foul on the next possession as Andrew Smith drove to the bucket. Smith hit both free throws, 50-47.
On the next possession, Stewart held the ball at the top of the key, closely guarded by Smith, and swung the ball to get some space. He was whistled for throwing an elbow, fouling out.
But the Panthers did not give up. Following a Villa Madonna miss on the next possession, Damron found Boles open in the lane for a basket, 52-47.
Carroll did a good job of taking care of the basketball, playing tough defense and hitting enough shots of their own to keep the lead secure.
“We talk about there are actually two games out there going on,” Yager said. “At about the five-minute mark, it’s a different game. What’s a good shot, what you would do up to that point may be a little different if the game is tight, and I thought we did a pretty good job of keeping our composure ... We went to the foul line and hit free throws down the stretch.”
Crowell was 4-6 and Damron was 3-4 from the line in the fourth quarter.
Gibson led the Panthers with 19 points and 12 rebounds, five offensive. Boles also hit double-figures with 13 points, followed by Damron, 9 points; Crowell, 8 points; Wise and Dakota Corbin with 4 points; and Stewart with 2 points.
Overall, the Panthers shot 45 percent from the field, but missed a lot of close shots in the paint. But Yager said he is confident those are shots that will fall as the season goes on. “That’s a little bit of jitters, timing.”
Yager said they made some adjustments on the defensive end, switching on every screen and keeping their opponent out on the perimeter. He said the team needs to work on defending the dribble-drive and not losing focus with the lead. He noted that Villa Madonna got more confident as the game went on, and “I think we did a good job of not completely collapsing and letting them come all the way back.”
“It’s a ‘W,’ we’ve got that under (our belts),” he said. “… (Villa Madonna) made a lot of good adjustments, and you’ve got to give them credit, they found it hard to get back in the game.”