Thursday, Jan. 31, 2008

Panthers back on the prowl

After a shaky start, Pallotti boys have heated up in January

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Susan Whitney⁄The Gazette
In December, the St. Vincent Pallotti High School boys’ basketball team bottomed out and lost seven of its first nine games. The Panthers had just dropped two of three games at a holiday tournament and were about to make the long trip to Atlanta for another. To make sure the trip wouldn’t be a wash, coach Shae Johnson got into his players’ heads.

Not by berating them, but having them hold hands, pray together and take an oath to take responsibility for the season.

The Panthers took the promise seriously. They won two of three at the Georgia tournament and lately have been the hottest team in the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association B Conference, winning nine of their last 10 games and five league contests in a row — including a 51-42 win against South Division-leading St. Mary’s last week.

With four games remaining in the regular season, the conference playoffs are back in play for Pallotti (11-10, 5-5). The Panthers dropped their first five league games but are now in third place and in position for the division’s final playoff spot.

The momentum-shifting team meeting last month stuck out in the mind of junior point guard Leon Porter.

‘‘It was a very calm conversation,” he said. ‘‘There wasn’t too much yelling, not too much screaming. But [coach] gave us some things to think about. He made us realize that in order to be the best we’ve got to play to win every night.”

The poor start was unusual for Pallotti, which went 20-7 last year and reached the league semifinals for the fourth year in a row. When the Panthers hit last year’s loss total not even a month into the season, they knew this season was going to be a new experience.

‘‘We thought it was going to be easy,” said senior Ryan Cook. ‘‘Then it wasn’t, so we had to work to hard to get back to where we were.”

Pallotti’s game against the Saints on Thursday was the third meeting between the teams this season. St. Mary’s won the first game, 76-75, then clipped the Panthers again in a holiday tournament at Bullis, 77-72. The losses just about summed up the way league play was going for Pallotti: five defeats, none by more than seven points.

‘‘We thought we could just cruise through it and we thought we were better than we were,” Porter said. ‘‘We thought we could just blow teams out. But we realized there were going to be a lot of close games. We’re not the same team we were last year.”

During their current hot streak, senior starters Cook, Jose Cavallo and Payton Flynn have come to contribute and lead as Johnson expected them. Cook led the Panthers with 12 against St. Mary’s, while Flynn had six points and Cavallo added four in the low-scoring game.

But just as important have been some of the improved players and a few surprises.

The 5-foot-5 Porter scored all seven of his points during his team’s 17-5 surge in the fourth quarter that won the Panthers the game.

And sophomore forward Eric Washington had St. Mary’s covered on defense from the opening tip, which he grabbed out of the air from the Saints and started Pallotti on a 19-5 run to open the game. He had 10 rebounds, two steals and a block and has averaged double-figure rebounding in January.

‘‘For a young kid like that, that’s pretty awesome,” Johnson said.

St. Mary’s came back from a 24-18 halftime deficit with an 11-0 run to open the third quarter. But Pallotti went on a fourth-quarter charge and took the lead for good, 41-39, midway through the period. Kendall Watkins (nine points) stole a rebound from Mark McNeil and found Cook, who was fouled on a drive to the hoop and hit a pair of free throws.

The win added to a streak that is incongruous to Pallotti’s lagging start, but from the Panthers’ perspective, now they are back to where they always thought they should be.

‘‘I think we all still knew that we could win and should be winning,” Porter said.

E-mail Kevin Hilgers at khilgers@gazette.net.