Panthers boys’ hoops hold on to win road opener

On paper it appeared that Spring Lake Park’s experienced roster should have an easy time with Mounds View who started an all-new lineup. And for the first half-plus that was the case as the Panthers built an 18-point lead early in the second half, but then the Mustangs roared back with timely defense, consistent free throw shooting and key baskets to come within a buzzer-beater off the rim of tying the game in a 64-62 loss at Mounds View Dec. 4.

Spring Lake Park’s Robert Ben looks to make a contested shot over three Mustangs players. Photo by Jason Olson

Three years ago a similar scenario faced the two teams, but that time the Mustangs hit the game-winner as the final buzzer sounded.

Spring Lake Park played without two players because of injuries to senior guard Trevor Hall (broken hand) and starting senior center Justin Axelson (rotator cuff tear) who is recovering from an injury sustained in the final football game of the season earlier in November. Panthers coach Grant Guzy hopes to have both return over the next week.

Without Axelson’s inside presence, the Panthers relied on the guards to work the ball around for open looks and aggressive defense to limit the Mustangs’ ability to work the ball inside the paint.

Two fewer key contributors also shorted Guzy’s bench to seven.

Mounds View countered with a pair of juniors playing in their first varsity games including 6-5 center Tim Hanson and 6-3 forward Ben Spencer. As the game moved into the second half, the pair challenged any interior moves and passes through the lane. They created challenging match-ups on the other end of the court for the Panthers defense.

Spring Lake Park guard Gary Cook, middle, goes in for a lay-up after stealing the ball early in the second half. Photo by Jason Olson

“We stopped playing defense with our feet,” Guzy said. “The lack of a rotation meant the guys started getting tired and started reaching in and Mounds View didn’t seem to miss much from the line.”

Mounds View’s comeback was aided by drawing fouls as it was into the bonus with more than 10 minutes left in the contest. Senior Robert Ben drew his third foul early in the second half which forced Guzy to make some adjustments.

“We were just giving them free points and that helped them get back into the game,” Guzy said. “They hit free throws and started making some shots from the outside and before you knew it we’re practically losing after being up by 16 points.”

Spring Lake Park senior guard Matt Vradenburg, middle, splits two Mounds View players late in the season-opener Dec. 4. Photo by Jason Olson

The comeback continued as Spring Lake Park missed shots that fell in the first half and didn’t get offensive rebounds to sustain possessions. From that point Mounds View pushed the ball up the court to challenge for either fouls or easy baskets.

“It was a good battle,” Mustangs coach David Leiser said about the second half performance. “At the half we said we’re either going to lose by 20 [points] or we’re going to come back. We’re going to come back fighting or are we going to get blown out?”

Leiser said they were conservative in the first half, given the experience level and Spring Lake Park’s willingness to push the pace.

“We wanted to keep guys in front of them and not take risks,” he said.

The Panthers seemed to lose that fire from the first half to create turnovers and transition baskets which helped build a 39-23 halftime lead.

“We pressured them hard in the first half and turned them over then sat back on our heels in the second half,” Guzy said. “We were playing not to lose, kind of hang-on and get out of here with a win instead of attacking and playing our [version] of basketball – forcing turnovers and getting the running game going a bit.”

Panthers point guard TC Robinson led the way with 17 points, Ben added 14 points and senior Gary Cook provided a much-needed spark off the bench, creating turnovers and turning them into 13 points. He picked-off the ball from unsuspecting Mustangs several times including late in the game.

Guzy is comfortable with the way Robinson ran the offense from the point guard spot. “He showed he’ll be one of the better point guards around,” Guzy said. “He’s a good ball-handler, can attack off the dribble but some of the decisions down the stretch weren’t the best. He’s still young and that will come with experience.”

Mounds View cut the lead to 55-49 with 7:20 left. Mounds View’s Hanson grew his presence inside late by collecting loose balls at both ends of the floor. He had a put-back under the rim to make it 57-53 with 5:07 left, then Cook was called for a reach-in foul on guard Nick Justin, who made both free throws to make it 60-55 with 3:50 left. Spring Lake Park quickly pushed the ball up the court, but Cook missed an inside jump shot only to have Ben fouled on the put-back, slam dunk attempt. Ben made the second free throw to make it 61-55 with 3:11 remaining.

Justin responded with a huge three pointer to cut the lead to three points, 61-58 with 2:30 left, but Ben came right back and made a fade away jump-shot from the baseline to push the lead back to five points with 1:40 to go. On the following possession, the Mustangs’ Hanson had a heads-up play to strip the ball away from a Panthers player near the Mounds View basket and quickly converted the turnover into a lay-up to make it 63-60 with 1:20 left.

Robinson turned the ball over once again as his foot crossed the half-court line for an over-and-back violation to give the Mustangs the ball back with 59.1 seconds left, down by three points. After a jump-ball tie-up for the Mustangs, it was 6-3 forward Ryan Kaczynski who fed Hanson inside for the put-back off the glass to make it a 63-62 game with 32.5 seconds left.

Cue the Rocky music during the Panthers timeout.

Once again, the Mustangs defense denied Spring Lake Park’s in-bounds play as the loose ball was picked up by Kaczynski. Another tie-up by Cook went to the Panthers, but the in-bounds attempt was rejected immediately by the Mustangs with 16.9 seconds left.

The Panthers used another in-bounds play to work the ball up-court where Robinson collected the ball and was immediately fouled. He made the first free throw to push the lead to 64-62 with 9.1 seconds left. After the second shot clanked off the rim, the Mustangs grabbed the rebound and worked the ball quickly up the court to an open Spencer, but his baseline attempt came back off the rim as the final buzzer sounded.

A collective exhale came from the Panthers bench and student section behind the bench as they held on for the narrowest of victories.