HENRY — It took the Putnam County boys basketball team three overtimes to top Woodland when the two squads last met at the Tri-County Conference Tournament in mid-January.
Thursday, the Panthers used lock-down defense down the stretch to make sure they wouldn’t need extra time as they overcame a four-point fourth-quarter deficit to claim a 53-44 win in semifinal action of the Class 1A Henry Regional.
With its 13th straight win, second-seeded Putnam County (23-7) advances to tonight’s 7:30 p.m. regional championship against TCC foe and No. 4-seeded Marquette (14-15).
“They’re a good team. They got us down 15-4 last time, and we played pretty well after that,” said Putnam County coach Josh Nauman of his team’s 66-51 win over the Crusaders on Feb. 1. “Hopefully, we won’t dig ourselves a hole like that (tonight) and we’ll come out and play the way we’ve been playing.
“It’s 13 straight wins and we’ve been playing pretty well. Hopefully, we’ll come out and keep our composure. That’s the biggest thing in a regional — the team that comes out and plays their game can usually win it.”
On Thursday, the Panthers took a 22-16 lead at half and pushed it to as much as 10 in the third quarter before PC watched its advantage melt away as the Warriors closed the quarter with a 14-2 run.
The Warriors started the fourth frame with a bucket from Nate Roemer to take a 34-30 lead, but the momentum would soon shift.
A Woodland turnover set up a Harold Fay drive and bucket — the first points of the contest for the PC junior — to knot things up at 38-38 with four minutes to play.
Then the Panthers pounced, forcing Woodland turnovers on the next five Warrior possessions with tough zone defensive pressure.
The defensive lightning strike sparked the PC offense.
Cody Veronda nailed a 3 from the top of the key to put the Panthers up 41-38, and Evan Kreiser added a basket in the paint to extend the advantage to four.
Fay added a pair of free throws, and Xavier Warren and Kreiser each split a pair from the charity stripe to continue the rally and give PC a 47-38 lead with just inside of a minute to go.
Jon Hays nailed a 3-pointer from the right side with 40 seconds remaining to stop the bleeding for the Warriors, but the Panthers responded with four-straight free throws from Warren and Kreiser to renew their double-digit lead and sew things up, rendering a late 3-pointer from Woodland’s Alex Miller and a layup from Veronda off a press breaker both academic.
“We played not to lose for three quarters. We came out playing scared a little bit and playing uptight and just played not to lose instead of to win,” Nauman said. “Instead of trying to make plays, we were trying not to mess up. Finally, early in the fourth quarter, we hit a couple shots and snapped out of it. We got some energy and enthusiasm and started making plays down the stretch.”
Warren led the Panthers with 17 points and added five rebounds. Veronda added 14 points, while Kreiser joined the duo in double-digit scoring with 11 points and registered a team-high nine rebounds.
Roemer led Woodland (17-12) with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Alex Miller chipped in with 10 points and eight boards.
Note: Putnam County has not lost since Jan. 5 when it fell in Henry’s John C. Anderson Gym against the host Mallards.
Chris Yucus can be reached at 220-6995, or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @NT_SportsChris.