TROY - Panama girls basketball coach Jeff Angeletti finally could take a breath after watching his team play in the state semifinals for the third straight year on Saturday.
"It never gets old ... or easy," he said with a smile.
There was plenty of happiness from the Panthers after this game, a 48-43 win over undefeated South Kortright of Section IV. The victory gave Panama its second straight trip to the Class D final.
But Angeletti was right - it wasn't easy. This was exactly the type of hard-fought game that a state semifinal should be. The game featured an experienced Panama team against a Rams squad that was 22-0 entering the game.
"Give them all the credit in the world," Angeletti said. "Alexa DuBois and Brianna Laing are special players. They've got seniors who played here a couple of years ago.
"I don't know if destiny is the right word, but we were in the right place at the right time."
The first half was a case of the two teams trading runs in a fun first half. For example, Panama jumped out to a 14-6 lead halfway through the first period. South Kortright answered with 10 straight points in the next two and one-half minutes. The Panthers jumped ahead by six early in the second quarter, but the Rams had a 12-2 spurt to take control just before the half.
Anna Reinshagen had eight points in the first half for South Kortright, as she scored four fast-break baskets by getting behind the Panama defense.
"That was the big thing at halftime - we said, let's not let them get any transition baskets," Angeletti said.
"I think it was a case of everyone's jitters in the first half," Nicole Johnson said. "We've been a second-half team all year. When we come out after halftime, we're ready to go."
Suddenly in the second half, the tempo of the game changed completely. There were only 15 points in total scored in the entire third quarter by the two teams; Panama had 10 of them to take the lead. The Panthers had an easier time scoring baskets, which was crucial at that stage.
"When they switched to man-for-man, a piece fell into place," Angeletti said. "We started to get some pick-and-roll plays."
The fourth quarter almost belonged to DuBois. She scored the final 10 points of the game for the Rams, single-handedly tying the game with 1:36 to go. But Panama responded.
The Panthers had a one-point lead and the ball with less than 40 seconds left. Lauren Barmore penetrated the lane and passed to Johnson for a lay-up, and Panama had a three-point lead. The play couldn't have been diagrammed any better.
"That's the way it played out," Johnson said. "We had tried it earlier in the game and it didn't work. But the second time Lauren dished it, and I finished."
South Kortright missed a couple of threes in the final seconds, Panama added an insurance basket at the buzzer, and the Panthers were winners.
Johnson led Panama in scoring with 14 points, while Natalie Angeletti finished with 12. DuBois had 20 for South Kortright.
There's one more team in the Panthers' way of a state championship. It's Heuvelton of Section X. Again. The Bulldogs were easy winners over Moriah in the other semifinal.
The Bulldogs have eliminated Panama at the state championships in each of the last two seasons. On Sunday morning at 10, we'll find out if the third time is the charm for the Panthers.
"It's awesome - the best feeling," guard Abi Lisciandro of Panama said. "We've talked about this all year. This is what we wanted, and I think we're ready."