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Boys basketball: Panthers stymie Hillcrest Academy

Jan. 25—KALONA — Just six weeks earlier, the Panthers were blitzed early by Hillcrest Academy and never seemed to recover.

The Ravens scored 23 points in the opening quarter of a Southeast Iowa Superconference north division boys basketball contest at Pekin back on Dec. 12 and never looked back, winning 61-52 after jumping out to a 10-point lead after eight minutes. For the Panthers, the focus was simple going into Tuesday's rematch just north of Kalona.

"We were determined to play better team defense," Pekin junior Will Adam said. "We wanted this one really bad, especially with how hard it is to win in their gym."

The Panthers set the tone for a much different result early and often in the first half, holding Hillcrest Academy without a point for nearly four minutes to open the rematch with the Ravens. After giving up the lead on the final play of the opening period, Pekin responded by shutting out Hillcrest Academy in the second quarter on the way to a satisfying 51-40 road win on Tuesday lifting the Panthers into third place in the SEISC north division standings.

"Our team defense was awesome," Pekin head boys basketball coach John Swanson said. "Our communication was great. We worked together on every possession, kept guys out of the middle, contested every shot and grabbed those rebounds to limit their opportunities. Our effort, our attitude and our mental toughness was outstanding."

Pekin limited Hillcrest Academy to 11 fewer field goal attempts on Tuesday than in the nine-point loss to the Ravens back in December, aided in large part by a 32-16 rebounding edge. Hillcrest Academy struggled from the field, making just 12 field goals on Tuesday after hitting nearly twice as many shots (23) in the first meeting with the Panthers.

"We just had to want it more this time," Adam said. "We were determined right from the start. We did not want them to score the basketball at all."

Adam set the tone on both ends of the floor right from the start, taking the ball off the opening tip won by JaeDon Wolver and driving in for an opening lay-up. Wolver would a pull-up 3-pointer for the Panthers before finding Sven Dahlstrom on a full court pass after collecting a defensive rebound, giving Pekin a 7-0 lead.

"We just wanted to build off that. We knew, if we could keep our energy going, it was going to be a good night," Adam said. "We haven't been coming out very hot in most of our games this season. Coming out, playing good defense and starting out on a 7-0 run was awesome. It gave us confidence we needed right from the start."

Hillcrest Academy (11-5, 8-4 SEI north) answered Pekin's early run by scoring the next seven points, including five in a row from Mason Bender. Kasey Davis gave the Panthers the lead back, sinking a 3-pointer with 33 seconds left in the period, before the Ravens responded with a drive to the basket by Kale Bailey and a steal that led to a last-second half-court heave by Seth Ours that Adam thought he had blocked away.

Instead, a foul was called on Adam giving Ours three free throw opportunities. The Ravens leading scorer sank all three free throws, giving Hillcrest Academy its first lead of the night at 12-10 heading into the second quarter.

"We talked all week about needing to be the more physical team," Swanson said. "We needed that fast start to give ourselves a chance."

Davis matched Adam by scoring a team-leading 11 points for the Panthers, including a tying jumper after opening the second quarter with a steal and a rebound to level the game at 12-12. Wolver then found Isaac Sylvester inside for the lead with five minutes left in the first half.

Pekin would not relinquish the advantage. While Hillcrest Academy struggled from the field, making just four of 21 field goal attempts in the first half, the Panthers got a spark off the bench from Cole Millikin who sank 3-pointers on consecutive possessions as Pekin built a 22-12 halftime lead responded to the first-quarter run by the Ravens.

"I can't say enough about the team aspect of the game and how our guys worked together," Swanson said. "This was our best performance of the year by far."

Pekin never looked back after adding to their halftime lead, scoring seven of the first nine points of the second half. Wolver, after challenging Keaton Winn's single-game program for rebounds with 23 on Saturday on Saturday in a win at Columbus, hauled in 13 rebounds for the Panthers on Tuesday while Adam stymied Ours holding the Hillcrest Academy junior to just nine points, over eight points below his 17.1 points-per-game average.

Pekin (8-7, 8-3 SE north) dropped a 77-24 non-conference decision to eighth-ranked (2A) Pella Christian on Thursday. After wrapping up the week hosting Lone Tree, the Panthers will begin a new week traveling to Louisa-Muscatine for SEISC north division action on Tuesday.

— Scott Jackson can be reached at sjackson@ottumwacourier.com. Follow him on Twitter@CourierScott.