TROY – They were on a mission.
Rewind to last season when Panama was making its first appearance in the New York State Class D final four. The Panthers were overwhelmed by eventual champion Heuvelton, 57-39.
With seven returning players, they were more focused on the results than the experience this year. But Panama had to hold off a hard-charging Fort Edward before pulling out a 46-43 win Saturday morning in the semifinals at Hudson Valley Community College.
And there will be a rematch with Heuvelton of Section X for the state championship Sunday morning at 10 a.m. Heuvelton defeated Eldred of Section IX, 59-45, in Saturday’s the other Class C semifinal.
“I think last year definitely helped us,” said senior captain Emilee Sperry. “We weren’t as nervous. We knew the place, we knew the court, we knew what we had to do and I think that helped a lot.”
“We were just happy to get here last year, and this year we want to win it,” said freshman guard Madalyn Bowen. “That’s all we’re here for. We just want to win it.”
Sperry came out of the gate hitting from long range, knocking down a pair of three-pointers early as Panama started the game on an 8-0 run. Fort Edward turned some defensive stops into points to cut the lead to 10-8 after the first quarter.
But the Panthers started the second strong with a quick bucket from Nicole Johnson and another three from Sperry to open a 15-8 lead. A three-pointer from Taylor Bowen gave Panama a double-digit lead, 19-8. Fort Edward ran into foul trouble, getting a bit too aggressive crashing the glass. Panama spent much of the rest of the quarter at the free-throw line, but the Flying Forts chipped away at the lead. Two free throws by Kaciey Sardina cut the lead to four, 23-19, but Tara Sweeney put in a layup in the final seconds as Panama broke the full court press and took a 25-19 lead into the break.
Fort Edward continued to chip away early in the third and a three-pointer by Kaciey Sardina tied the game, 29-29, with 2:33 left in the quarter.
That’s when Madalyn Bowen took charge.
The freshman, who was on the team last year as an eighth-grader, answered with a drive to the basket to give Panama back the lead. She scored six of the Panthers’ next nine points as they took a 38-31 lead after 24 minutes.
“Madalyn knocked some big-time, senior-type shots down,” Panama coach Jeff Angeletti said. “She’s done that all year for us. I think she’s our X-factor because she can penetrate and she can knock down the jump shot. We knew with matchups they’d try to get away a little bit from outside shots, so Madalyn knew going in she was going to have to get to the basket and make some big shots, which she did.”
Fort Edward wasn’t quite done yet. Another bucket by Sardina, who had a game-high 24 points, tied the game, 41-41, with about three minutes to play. That’s when Panama started hitting free throws, including a pair by senior Taylor Bowen with 25 seconds left to give Panama a 45-41 lead, making it a two-possession game.
“My sister hit those free throws and that was huge,” Madalyn Bowen said. “I think it was a total team effort.”
“Basketball’s a game of runs and we knew they had many more runs in them and we knew we had runs in ourselves,” Angeletti said. “I knew it could come down to free-throw shooting. At the end I thought we held our composure. We made some free throws but give them all the credit in the world. They outscrapped us as far as rebounds go, but we didn’t give up.”
Fort Edward (21-4) held a 38-26 advantage on the boards and notched 16 steals with its full-court defense.
Madalyn Bowen paced Panama with 15 points. Sperry finished with nine points, all on three-pointers. Nicole Johnson had eight points and 11 rebounds while Taylor Bowen had eight points and six rebounds.