Panthers headed to state for first time in 12 years
For the first time in 30 years, the Park City Panthers raised the trophy of divisional champions last Saturday.
The road to Saturday night’s trophy ceremony was exciting, and by no means easy.
Park City entered the tournament as the second seed from the 6C district. The team’s first divisional matchup was against the Jordan Mustangs.
A quick pace was established from tipoff, and the Mustangs jumped to an early 7-0 lead. The Panthers did not panic, though, and Park City put together a 6-1 run of their own. Jordan continued to push the pace, and the Panthers kept the game close. Two successful free throws by senior Rylan Gauthier gave Park City the 15-14 lead at the end of the first quarter of play.
The Panther offense came alive in the second quarter, led by Gauthier, senior Talon Johnstone, and junior Connor McNeil. By halftime, Park City had a 35-19 lead.
The second half belonged to the Panthers. Behind strong, confident offensive and defensive efforts, Park City out-scored Jordan 31-13 for the 66-32 victory.
Gauthier had a good game, leading the team with 25 points, going 5-6 for free throws. McNeil put up a solid 18, and Johnstone scored eight.
Johnstone led the team with 11 rebounds, followed by junior Austin Popp with nine.
The win set up a very difficult semifinal game for the Panthers against Melstone, the number three team in the state.
Neither team scored for the first minute and a half of the game, and for the rest of the first quarter the game was low-scoring as both teams struggled to get initial shots to fall. Gauthier hit a three-point shot at the end of the first to give Park City a 7-6 lead.
The second quarter was a battle, with the Panthers and Broncs trading the lead back and forth. With about 45 seconds left in the first half, the game was tied, but going into halftime, Melstone had the lead, 19-18.
Melstone opened second half scoring, but Popp tied the game with a quick three-pointer. Behind three-point shots from McNeil and Gauthier, paired with very tough Park City defense, the Panthers were able to get an eight-point lead at the halfway point of the third quarter. The Broncs fought back, though, and a Melstone three-point shot with 10 seconds left gave the Broncs a 31-29 lead entering the final quarter.
The Melstone lead stretched to five points in the beginning of the fourth, but Park City came back and took a 40-38 lead with 3:45 left in the game after two Gauthier three-pointers. The Broncs tied the game with 1:30 left, but a shot by Johnstone gave the Panthers a two-point lead 30 seconds later.
After two missed free throws by each team, Gauthier was able to steal the ball and score quickly to give Park City a 44-40 lead with 18 seconds left to play. Melstone was only able to make one more shot, and the Panthers won, 44-42.
Gauthier led the team with 20 points, including four three-point shots. Johnstone scored 11, and McNeil added seven.
Johnstone had 13 of Park City’s 41 rebounds to lead the team. Popp, Gauthier, and McNeil each had four boards. Two steals were recorded by both Johnstone and Gauthier.
The exciting Friday night victory set up an opportunity for the Panthers to get some revenge. The divisional championship game was a repeat of the district championship – Park City versus Bridger.
The Panthers were able to get the lead before the game even started. Gauthier made both free throws following a Bridger technical foul in warm-ups.
After grabbing the early lead, Park City stepped on the gas and never looked back. Bridger began the game off-balance, and Park City took full advantage of Scout mistakes. At the end of the first quarter, the score was 9-2 in the Panthers’ favor. The Park City offense really got rolling in the second quarter, and at halftime, the Panthers had a 27-8 lead.
The Scouts only made one field goal in the entire first half, and it came about halfway through the second quarter. The Johnstone brothers – Talon and Tristen – led the Panther defense with great performances guarding the two tallest Bridger players. Not only did the Johnstones limit the number of rebounds those players were able to grab, but more importantly, the Panther boys were able to eliminate the offensive threats those Scouts players can be.
While Bridger made more shots in the second half than in the first, the Panther offense and defense continued a dominating performance to win 61-39.
As a team, the Panthers shot 75 percent from behind the arc, and 70 percent from the free throw line.
Gauthier again led the Panthers with 25 points, including 13 of 14 free throw attempts. Talon Johnstone had 12 points, making five of eight free throws, and McNeil put up seven points.
Talon led with 11 rebounds, followed by Popp with five. McNeil and Tristen Johnstone each had four. Gauthier had three steals, and McNeil had two.
With the win, Park City won its first divisional championship since 1988, when the Panthers beat Terry. The victory also ensured Park City a place at the state tournament, the first time the Panthers have been to state since 2006.
Park City Coach Ben Southworth is very proud of his team for how well the boys played last weekend.
“They put in a ton of hard work so far this season, so it’s nice that they can see how it pays off in the end,” he noted.
Junior Tristen Johnstone was given the difficult task of guarding the best players from both Melstone and Bridger, and he did a very good job containing his opponents.
“Tristen has been doing this all year – he embraces the challenge and loves it,” Southworth explained. “Heart is what makes for a great defensive player, and Tristen – as well as the entire Panther basketball team – have a ton of that.”
Southworth said the state tournament will be difficult, but the team is still working hard to improve and prepare, and he mentioned that the players are looking forward to the challenge of competing.
Park City will face Fairveiw in the first-round of the state tournament in Butte on Thursday evening at 6:30 p.m.
A win would send the Panthers to the semifinals Friday night at 8 p.m. to face the winner of the Heart Butte-Manhattan Christian game. A loss to Fairview would drop Park City to loser-out play Friday at 2 p.m. against the loser of the Heart Butte-Manhattan Christian matchup.
The competition will be stiff at state. Six of the eight teams finished the regular season ranked in the top 10 statewide: Arlee (1), Scobey (2), Melstone (3), Manhattan Christian (4), Heart Butte (5), and Fairview (8).
Southworth noted that Park City will have to bring its A-game to compete this weekend.
If last week’s win against number three Melstone is any indicator, the Panthers are capable of competing with the best.