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Panama meets its match but relishes experience

TROY – Panama’s girls fell short of earning the ultimate memory, but they will never forget their first New York State Public High School Athletic Association final four experience.

It would’ve been sweet to play for a championship, but the ride came to an end at the hands of another first-time state semifinalist – one with a superstar and whole lot of athleticism.

Section X champion Heuvelton ended the Panthers’ season Saturday morning in a Class D semifinal with a 57-39 victory before an estimated 750 at Hudson Valley Community College’s Edward F. McDonough Sports Complex.

Taylor Bowen (13 points, six rebounds) and Natalie Angeletti (10 points, six boards) shouldered the offensive load for Panama (20-5), but the Panthers’ season is over because they struggled shooting from the floor (23 percent, including 0 for 12 from downtown) and stopping Lady Bulldogs sophomore sensation Paige McCormick.

The 5-foot-11 McCormick scored 11 of her game-high 24 points during the third quarter as Heuvelton squashed any comeback hopes Panama may have had. The second-year varsity player also surpassed 1,000 career points.

“We tried man, we tried zone, we tried everything,” first-year Panama coach Jeff Angeletti said. “The girls worked hard. We tried to find her. When we’d do that, they’d dump it into one of their other bigs.”

Specifically Olivia St. Pierre, who finished with 12 points and 12 rebounds. But McCormick was the ultimate difference-maker for the Bulldogs (23-2), who will play Section IV champion South Kortright at 10 a.m. Sunday for the state championship.

“For our team, it feels amazing because last year we worked so hard and lost in the elite eight by a point,” said McCormick, who also grabbed seven rebounds, made three steals and had three assists. The last two seasons, “we’ve worked so hard for this moment.”

The Bulldogs seized it, bolting to an early 17-6 lead. The 17th point was the 1,000th for McCormick, who sank the second free throw after missing the first.

Panama pulled within six as Taylor Bowen scored five straight points, but Heuvelton’s athleticism and length proved to be too much for the Panthers. Nathalie Barr’s three-pointer sparked a 10-4 run to end the first half.

The Panama faithful tried to infuse confidence in its team prior to the third quarter with positive cheers, but McCormick silenced them. She scored 10 points during a 12-2 blitz that sealed the Panthers’ fate but didn’t crush their pride.

Yes, there were tears after the game but what a ride it’s been for the players and coaches.

They received a state semifinal send off that included the closing of school so that the student body could join the community in sending the team off on the road with a parade. The Panthers even received a fire department escort to the I-86 and got to stay at the Marriott during their time in the Capital Region.

“It was a great experience for the kids, one they’ll never forget,” said Angeletti, who called the trip to the final four the highlight of his sporting career – which included playing baseball in college.

This could just wind up being a learning experience for Panama. Most of this year’s team was underclassmen, which means the Panthers view this more as a beginning instead of an ending.

“It’s hard to top this but we know what we have to do,” Angeletti said. “State championship.”