MONTICELLO — Adam Schonauer entered Miller Gymnasium on Wednesday morning with one certainty.
His Paxton-Buckley-Loda boys' program needed to knock off a pair of multi-time champions in the Monticello Holiday Hoopla to land the Panthers' first-ever title-game appearance.
Drake Schrodt, Austin Gooden and Dalton Busboom came up big for the Panthers in their second tilt of the day, lifting PBL past Monticello 54-49 and into Friday's championship bout.
"Our guys are excited," Schonauer said. "They're proud of themselves. Being able to beat a good Monticello team on their own court, it was really big for us psychologically."
That victory for the Panthers (7-3) followed a 60-54 triumph versus Ridgeview earlier in the day.
In 21 previous boys' Holiday Hoopla showcases, the host Sages (9-2) and Mustangs have combined for 11 first-place finishes.
PBL has none.
But that soon could change, regardless of how the Panthers fare at 2 p.m. today in their final pool play contest, against Oakwood.
"Our guys have a lot of confidence right now," Schonauer said. "Ultimately, a winning basketball team is able to put wins and losses behind them and come out the next day."
Monticello didn't make it easy for PBL to retain the positive vibes from the latter squad's win over Ridgeview.
The Panthers held a four-point lead entering the final quarter with the Sages, and PBL quickly extended that advantage to 10 via a pair of three-pointers from junior Sam Penicook — his only field goals of the night.
But a trio of triples from Monticello junior Ethan Miller and additional baskets from seniors Benton Singleton and Alek Bundy eventually put the home side ahead 49-48 with 3 minutes, 4 seconds on the clock.
"That sparked us and got us going a little bit," Sages coach Kevin Roy said. "But down the stretch we needed to execute, and we couldn't execute with about a minute on the clock. We were playing on our heels."
After Monticello grabbed the lead, junior Busboom hit one of the Panthers' 12 free throws, senior Gooden added another and junior Schrodt iced the affair courtesy a driving layup with 31 ticks remaining.
"We've got to be able to move the ball, make multiple passes and try to loosen (Monticello) up a little bit," Schonauer said. "We did a better job of that late."
One deciding factor Wednesday was PBL taking 16 trips to the charity stripe versus just two for the Sages. It provides Roy with a valuable lesson for his bunch.
"We're playing too passive," he said. "We've got guys that are just looking to make passes ... and not looking to be players. So we've got to have guys step up."
Senior Devin Graham headed all scorers with 17 points for Monticello. Singleton was limited to nine points, though he aided the cause through seven rebounds, four blocked shots and three assists.
Schrodt garnered 14 points for the Panthers, Gooden finished with 10 and junior Trey VanWinkle notched nine.
Schonauer had even more plaudits to hand out after the result as well.
"Guys who didn't play as much against Ridgeview stepped up and gave us some really big minutes against Monticello," he said. "We kind of had some unsung heroes: (seniors) Alex Swanson and Jake Rich gave us some really good minutes defensively, taking charges and rebounding the basketball."
Even as PBL readies for Oakwood (7-6) today, the Panthers will keep an eye on what happens on the other side of the Hoopla bracket.
Gibson City-Melvin-Sibley and Tuscola have the early edge to face PBL for the crown, with both the Falcons (8-2) and the Warriors (9-1) opening with a win Wednesday.
After rough losses to GCMS and Bloomington Central Catholic in previous weeks, Schonauer is seeing the Panthers' labor pay off.
"With where we're at now, it would be big for our confidence (to win the championship)," he said. "We've got to keep playing good competition and keep getting better."