HUTCHINSON — The important thing was not to panic.
It was probably easier said than done. After all, not many teams had come out and slapped the Phillipsburg High School boys’ basketball team in the mouth like Cheney did Friday night.
But the Panthers’ cooler head prevailed as Phillipsburg erased an early 11-point deficit and picked up a 59-46 victory in the Class 3A state semifinals at Hutchinson Sports Arena.
“Just had to keep our heads up,” said Panther senior Chris VanKooten. “Heads up and keep playing the game.
“Play our game, fast and just get back in it.”
It took a while, but eventually that’s what happened. Phillipsburg will play in the school’s first state championship in Saturday’s 6:15 p.m. game against Halstead.
“Our kids didn’t panic,” Phillipsburg coach Keith Sides said of the early deficit that reached 11 points just two minutes in. “They knew it was a long ball game. They just compete so hard all the time.”
The coach was worried, though, his Panthers had to exert too much energy to climb back in against Cheney’s trap defense, which gave Phillipsburg fits all night. By the end of the first quarter, the Panthers had clawed back in it. Cheney, though, still caused problems, outscoring Phillipsburg 10-6 in the second and maintained a six-point lead at half. Sides said he felt fortunate it wasn’t more.
“Cheney outplayed us big time and to only be down six, that was a good sign,” the coach said. “I was afraid we were tired.”
Cheney jumped out again in the third, but midway through, things slowly started going the Panthers’ way.
“They had a very good trap press,” VanKooten said. “We had a lot of trouble with it.”
With just less than three minutes to play in the third quarter, VanKooten got an assist from Trey Sides and Phillipsburg pulled to within 31-28. Later, Trey Sides connected on a 3-pointer to make it a four-point game in favor of Cheney with 47 seconds left in the third quarter. The make seemed to shift the momentum.
Then Austin Miller scored the first four points of the fourth quarter, and the game was tied.
“We found another level and dug deep,” Coach Sides said.
It wasn’t until the 5:08 mark of the fourth quarter that Phillipsburg finally seized control.
Freshman Ty Sides hit his lone 3-pointer to give Phillipsburg a 40-38 lead, one the Panthers never gave back.
With back-to-back-to-back steals, all of a sudden the Panthers were up 49-41 and well on their way to the championship game.
“They compete and know how to win,” Coach Sides said.
Trey Sides, who had two 3s in the comeback, finished with 18 points, while VanKooten added 10 for the Panthers. Lakin Petz led Cheney with 12 points.
The No. 2 seed Panthers will take on fifth-seeded Halstead in Saturday’s championship. Halstead (22-2) took out top-seeded Maur Hill 63-51 in the other semifinal.