Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

SPORTS>>PANTHERS END POSTSEASON DROUGHT

By KELLY FENTON
Leader sports editor

Gas was 50 cents, Jimmy Carter had just assumed the Oval Office, disco was on the rise and the Cabot Panthers were in the state basketball tournament.

The year was 1977. Carter was gone three years later, disco died and we all know what happened to gas prices. As for the Cabot Panthers, well, they pretty much disappeared from the state scene after that year.

Nothing in Cabotís 0-3 start to the 7A Central league race last January suggested the 2007-08 season, however promising its beginning, would be any different. The 31-year state-tournament drought appeared destined to reach 32.

Then, suddenly, the talented group of Panthers, led by Adam Sterrenberg, Miles Monroe, Austin Johnson and Sam Bates, began to play to their potential, starting with a come-from-behind win at Bryant that ignited a four-game winning streak.

Still, nothing was assured and another loss to Conway in a game they led by six with less than six minutes remaining, halted the Panthersí momentum and left them at 4-4. They were very much in the hunt for one of the six playoff berths but had nothing secured as the second half of the conference race began to heat up.

Derek Clarksonís game-winning three-pointer with 33 seconds remaining in a 36-35 victory over eventual state champion Catholic in early February brought the Panthers one step closer to ending their long postseason absence. It also set the tone for the rest of the season. Remarkably, their next six games were decided by two points or less.

The following game against North Little Rock, originally slated for a Tuesday night, was moved to Wednesday after strong storms in central Arkansas postponed the girlsí game at halftime.

It may have taken the Panthers an extra day to achieve their long-denied goal, but on Wednesday night, Cabot rallied from a 9-point deficit to take a lead late in the game. When Adam Sterrenberg sank a pair of free throws with 8.5 seconds remaining to secure the win, the Panthers had nailed down a state tournament bid.

The question remained, though, as to what seed Cabot would carry into Conway, site of the 7A state tournament in late February.

The close games kept coming, not all with happy endings. The North Little Rock win was followed by one-point losses to Central and Bryant and a two-point loss to Russellville on senior night. In between was a two-point win at Pine Bluff. The loss to Russellville cost the Panthers a four seed and they entered the state tournament as a six.

The nail-biter trend continued in the tournamentís first round when it took Austin Johnsonís two free throws with three seconds left to secure a 65-64 win and a trip to the quarterfinals against Central Conference champ Little Rock Central.

This time, head coach Jerry Bridges didnít have to chew on his nails or pull out any hair as Cabot controlled the game after intermission on its way to a 64-50 win and a slot in the semifinals against Conway.

It all came to an end with Cabotís third loss of the season to Conway. The Panthers fell behind by 22 points before storming back to whittle the deficit to five behind a 30-point peformance by Sterrenberg, but Conway held on and Cabotís season ended at 20-11.

But it was a special season that brought to an end Cabotís long absence in postseason.

ďThis season was fun,Ē Bridges said afterwards. ďI probably should have my head examined about why I got back into coaching.

But after this week, thatís why.

ďGive my boys credit. Five years ago people would have never said Cabot would be in the final four.Ē