It was a state tournament of moments, a few of which will live on in the hearts and minds of Panther fans for years to come.
There was the one-two punch of sophomores Mason Marchant and Landon Lengfelder against Torrington, sparking a decisive 32-7 run that broke the Trailblazers.
There was Jesse Brown, fouled on a late 3-point attempt against defending state champion Buffalo, calmly sinking all three free throws to turn a one-point deficit into a lead the Panthers wouldn’t give up.
And there were senior starters Kaelan Groves, Dalton Woodward and Will Preator, holding the team together through late-season adversity to lead the Panthers to the 3A championship game.
The 3A State Basketball Tournament was indeed one to remember for the Powell High School boys’ basketball team, who peaked at the right time to launch an improbable run to the state title game against Lander. Though the Panthers came up short in their championship bid 58-40, it was a tournament and a season, that PHS head coach Chase Kistler said the team will always remember.
“It wasn’t quite the finish we wanted, but our play at this tournament was still above and beyond what I expected and what I thought was going to happen,” he said. “I’m proud of these guys and the way they fought. They never quit, and they never gave up, no matter what the odds were.”
The Panthers began the tournament with a dominating 68-39 win over Torrington Thursday; they followed that with the upset of the 3A tournament, knocking off No. 1 Buffalo 66-64. The championship game may not have had the Hollywood ending the team was looking for — the team took second with a 58-40 loss to Lander — but for the players, lasting memories were made just the same.
“We stuck together through all the bad times and the good times,” Preator said. “I’m just going to remember this group of guys for the rest of my life.”
Lander 58, Panthers 40
The Powell boys charged through the first two rounds of the 3A State Basketball Tournament like a freight train, defying the odds to advance all the way to the title game. But against Lander on Saturday afternoon at the Casper Events Center, the train finally ran out of steam.
The Tigers, who have proved to be the biggest Panther-killers this season, jumped out to a 15-6 lead in the first quarter and never looked back. They bested their 3A Northwest Quadrant rivals for the fourth time this season, 58-40.
Lander’s Max Mazurie and Powell’s Jesse Brown traded 3-pointers to start the scoring, though the Panthers struggled to get shots to fall after that, going 6-of-24 from the field in the first half. The Tigers went on a 12-3 run to close out the first quarter. Despite a late charge in the second by Powell — punctuated by a Groves 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the half — led 30-17 at the break.
Unfortunately, the Panthers’ momentum at the end of the first half didn’t carry over to the second, as Lander went on an 11-1 run to start the third quarter. Entering the final period, Lander led 49-23.
The Panthers scored the first eight points in the fourth quarter but were unable to make a significant dent in Lander’s lead, as the Tigers won their first state championship since 2008.
Kistler said the loss will sting for a while, but won’t detract from what the Panthers — who were looking for their first state championship since 1998 — accomplished this season.
“Overall, I thought the tournament was excellent,” Kistler said. “I thought we finished well, the guys played really well as a team. I think towards the end, we just kind of ran out of gas. Their bodies were just tired.”
Marchant was the lone Panther in double digits in the contest, netting 16 points and grabbing seven rebounds. Preator closed out his Panther career with eight points to go along with seven rebounds of his own.
“We kept our hopes up the whole season, knowing we could do something special,” he said. “We beat the odds. No one believed in us, and we just stuck together as a family and as a team.”
Brown finished with six points, while Groves chipped in five. Lengfelder sank a 3-pointer for his points, and Adrian Geller closed out Powell’s scoring with two points.
Woodward finished the game with five rebounds and three blocked shots. As the dejected big man made his way to the locker room, he echoed Preator’s sentiments.
“It was something no one expected us to do, and that made it special,” Woodward said. “We made it to the dance. We came up short, but we never quit. We kept going. This is a special team.”
Panthers 66, Buffalo 64
Continuing a Cinderella story, Powell upset No. 1-ranked Buffalo 66-64 at Casper College on Friday to advance to the championship.
“We played extremely well; what I took from it was we just played very hard,” Kistler said. “They left it all out there for four quarters. It was very much an effort game, we were getting every loose ball, every rebound.”
Buffalo started fast, posting seven straight points before Preator got things going for the Panthers; he scored seven of his 15 points in the first quarter. The Bison held a 18-14 lead going into the second, but Powell battled back behind eight points from Marchant to take a short lead before Buffalo hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to tie the game 31-31 at the break.
“I told the guys, ‘Hey, we won that first half; we just gave up a big shot,’” Kistler said. “I thought we were really controlling the tempo and the pace.”
Powell grabbed a two-point advantage in the third quarter, leading 44-42 heading into the final frame. The game went back and forth from there, with neither team able to gain a sizable advantage. But with just over a minute to play and the Bison leading by one, Buffalo’s Aaron Thiele made a crucial error, fouling Brown as he attempted a 3-pointer. Brown hit all three foul shots to give Powell back the lead, and the Panthers held on for the upset, 66-64.
“We hit some big shots, and we made some big free throws to close out the game,” Kistler said. “I thought our conditioning really made a difference in the second half. Buffalo was really tired, and we were still hitting in that next gear.”
The defending state champion Bison came into the tournament with a 20-3 regular season record, and won the previous meeting between the two teams 63-53 back in December. With a 10-12 record on the season, few gave Powell a chance in the rematch, especially with the Panthers shorthanded.
Marchant netted 20 points to pace the Panthers, including going 4-of-4 from the foul line; his final two free throws with 1.8 seconds left put the game out of reach. Preator followed with 15 points and just missed a double-double, grabbing nine boards.
Groves finished with nine points, including a clutch 3-pointer in the fourth quarter to tie the game at 57-57 with two minutes to play. Lengfelder chipped in eight and Brown scored seven.
“The younger guys and the older guys played hard,” Kistler said. “We handled the pressure and didn’t buckle. We rose to every occasion that came up — and there was a lot.”
Buffalo’s Thiele led all scorers with 28 points.
The Panthers shot an impressive 65 percent from the floor in the second half and 53 percent for the game.
Panthers 68, Torrington 39
If sophomores Marchant and Lengfelder were nervous heading into their first-ever 3A State Basketball Tournament, it certainly didn’t show once they hit the floor. The duo combined for 28 points, as the Panthers advanced to Friday’s semifinals with a 68-39 drubbing of Torrington.
“We really shot the ball well this game, and we were getting good stops on defense,” Kistler said. “They [Torrington] have some great shooters, so we had to make a few minor adjustments as we went.”
Marchant’s 15 points led the team, followed by senior Will Preator with 14 and Lengfelder with 13. Preator and Lengfelder sank three 3-pointers each, while Brown hit a pair. Woodward had a team-high 10 rebounds to go along with his five points; the senior also led the team in assists with three.
Kistler thanked the community for its support this season, as well as school administrators and his assistant coaches. He also wanted to thank his players — especially his seniors.
“A lot of those guys have been in this program from start to finish, and they’ve been through the ups and the downs,” Kistler said. “They had some tough seasons where we struggled to get a win, all the way to a season where we’re .500 but make it all the way to the state championship.”
“They’ve weathered all of that and just kept getting better,” he said. “I’m proud of the way the guys played and finished.”