The Panama girls basketball team didn’t feel its back-to-back state Final Four appearances the previous two seasons earned it much respect because few outside the team picked the Panthers to do it again this season after losing key seniors.
That may just make Panama’s upcoming third straight trip to the NYSPHSAA semifinals its sweetest one yet.
The Panthers defeated Batavia Notre Dame of Section V, 49-40, Saturday in the Class D Far West Regional at Buffalo State Sports Arena, and advanced to the Class D Final Four next weekend at Hudson Valley Community College in Troy.
It’s been an impressive run for Panama, which knocked out Section VI’s top two Class D seeds to get to regionals and has now won 12 of 13 games.
“These girls against all odds made it,” said head coach Jeff Angeletti. “So to compare the years, this is one of the special ones because nobody outside us believed that we’d be there.”
Panama was led by its two underclassman captains, sophomore Madalyn Bowen and freshman Natalie Angeletti, who had team-highs of 17 and 12 points, respectively. Bowen, a third-year starter, said this year’s Far West Regionals win felt even better than previous years.
“Last year we lost two good players and this year we rose up,” she said. “No one believed we were going to come here except our community.”
Panama had an aggressive approach, as it snatched up multiple offensive rebounds and loose balls, and often caused turnovers in the Fighting Irish backcourt.
It’s something the team practices and takes pride in.
“We want those 50/50 balls,” Angeletti said. “If that means diving, taking charges, our girls are ready to hustle and they showed it. They wanted it.”
The Panthers stretched a three-point halftime lead into a 40-24 advantage, their largest of the game, midway through the fourth quarter. A series of sloppy plays from Panama helped the Fighting Irish cut the deficit to eight with 46 seconds left, but Panama held on.
“The third quarter was exactly what we wanted and then the fourth quarter came and … I think Batavia felt that sense of urgency and we just made some silly turnovers,” Angeletti said. “Give them some credit on defense, but at the same time we got to take care of the ball and close out the game a little better.
“Hats off to Batavia Notre Dame. That’s a young squad and they held it together. I thought they withstood our pressure pretty good.”
Notre Dame was aided in its 16-point fourth quarter by sophomore Callie McCulley, who had a team-high 13 points.
Heading to their third straight Final Four, Bowen and Natalie Angeletti said the support of the Panama community keeps them motivated every year.
“It makes us really want to win it for them,” Natalie Angeletti said.
The Panthers will look to claim a state championship after falling in last year’s Class D final to Heuvelton of Section X.