PBL turns back clock, breaks title drought

PBL turns back clock, breaks title drought

PAXTON — Man-to-man defense had not been kind to the Paxton-Buckley-Loda girls' basketball team this season — until Saturday night.

Coach Nathan Lawler said his squad lost in its first three tries against such a strategy heading into the Sangamon Valley Conference Tournament title game against unbeaten Watseka. The Warriors, it just so happens, are quite adept at man defense.

So how did Lawler's bunch defeat Watseka 42-39 to end not only the Warriors' 23-game win streak, but also snap a league tournament championship drought dating back to 1998 for the Panthers?

"I think the big thing for us, early on we lost games learning a new system and learning to compete," Lawler said, noting the seniors at PBL (16-5) are on their third head coach. "We're trying to change the culture, everything they've known. It's allowed the kids to figure out their roles, and we've been executing on both ends much better."

That was a two-pronged point Saturday, as the Panthers not only had to break the Warriors' vaunted defense, but also shut down Watseka senior Summer Cramer and her 16.2 points per game average.

On the offensive end for PBL, it was senior Liberty Jamison finding space to shoot. She tossed in five buckets from beyond the arc to finish with a game-best 21 points.

"She hit shots when we really needed them," Lawler sid. "In the first half, I think we were down 16-7 ... and she hit a three and kind of got her wind back."

After a Watseka putback basket to tie the game at 39 late, Jamison calmly nailed two free throws with seven seconds remaining despite missing a pair of technical-foul attempts earlier in the evening.

Meanwhile, freshman Baylee Cosgrove and junior Madi Peden were tasked with halting Cramer. And they experienced great success doing so, as all nine of Cramer's points came in the first eight minutes.

On top of that, Watseka was held without any sort of conversion through the entire third quarter.

"We're usually a pressing team, and we just decided, we're going to make them execute in the halfcourt because we trusted our defense," Lawler said. "Our kids played phenomenally on the defensive end."

Lawler said his Panthers have felt somewhat underestimated after previous struggles and turnover at the head coaching position. PBL qualified for the Monticello Holiday Hoopla title game in late December, but much of the attention was placed on Ridgeview, Tuscola and the host school.

And in the SVC Tournament, a high-flying Watseka team drew most eyes. Lawler said that when the Warriors tied Saturday's finale at 39, he wouldn't have been surprised if many observers believed Watseka had the necessary momentum to triumph.

But this group of Panthers is different than those of years past.

"The knock on PBL is it's a program that hasn't been able to finish big games," Lawler said. "For the girls to do that on the biggest stage of the season, they got the monkey off their back."

There was even a little extra motivation for Lawler's troops, as assistant coach Lynn Rubarts was on the staff of that 1998 PBL title-winning team.

"(She) is a PBL alum, and she really let them understand this could be a special group," Lawler said. "So it was pretty cool."