By Ray Hamill — The McKinleyville Panthers seem to find a way to save themselves when they need it the most.
On Wednesday night, they won their fifth straight game to keep their playoff push alive and remain in contention for a place in this year’s Dick Niclai Memorial Tournament.
And once again they had to dig deep, stepping up late in the game to pull out an exciting 59-53 win at home to Del Norte.
The win lifts the Panthers to 3-4 in the Big 5 and keeps them in the chase for second place going into the final night of action, with four teams still in the hunt for two spots in the Niclai tournament.
It’s a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost six straight at one stage and was 0-4 after the first half of league play.
“I’m just so proud of our group,” McKinleyville head coach Sonny Tripp said. “Our kids never gave up. They never turned on each other when we were down.”
White keys late rally
Trailing by one heading into the fourth quarter, the Panthers rallied late, stepping up at both ends of the court, and outscoring the visitors 17-10 for the period.
The loss was the third straight in the Big 5 for the Warriors, who dropped to 3-4 in conference and 13-7 overall.
Jake White was inspirational for the Panthers, and keyed the late surge with a couple of fourth-quarter 3-pointers on his way to a team-high 18 points.
“I loved Jake White’s performance,” Tripp said. “He’s just been grinding on defense, and he hit some big shots for us tonight.”
Isaac Puzz added 14 points in the win, as the Panthers displayed their versatility when the Warriors held dominating senior AJ Stubbs to just four points.
Freddie Sundberg, Thomas Locatelli and Craig Peterson each finished with six points in the win.
For Del Norte, which is still an impressive 12-7 overall, Omar Banuelos scored a game-high 21 points, while Ethan Price added 14 and Judah Robinson 10, including six in the fourth quarter to keep his team alive.
McKinleyville will play at Fortuna on Friday in what will be a tricky challenge, especially on senior night.
That, however, won’t intimidate the Panthers, who will bring plenty of momentum into the showdown.
“We’re feeling pretty good about the matchup,” Tripp said.
Del Norte can still clinch a place in the Niclai with a win at home to Eureka on Friday, although a fourth straight loss would leave the Warriors at the mercy of a tiebreaker.