Defending champ Panthers climb back into first
By GREGORY BROOME | STARS AND STRIPES Published: February 8, 2019
KAISERSLAUTERN, Germany -- Sports has countless cliches regarding the heart of a champion. But those cliches exist for a reason.
The two-time defending DODEA-Europe Division I girls basketball champion Stuttgart Panthers proved as much Friday night at Kaiserslautern High School, erasing a double-digit deficit, forcing overtime and ultimately stunning the host Raiders 45-44.
“These girls have a never-say-die attitude,” said Stuttgart head coach Robin Hess, adding that she let her players largely craft their own strategic adjustments after a frustrating first half. “They always think that they can change the outcome.”
The outcome was rather stubborn for the vast majority of the evening, as the Raiders entered the latter half of the fourth quarter sitting on the same advantage of roughly 10 points they’d held since the game’s opening few minutes. That’s when the Stuttgart rally it seemed would never materialize finally did, highlighted by a pair of three-pointers from Liv Sullens and a buzzer-beating offensive rebound and putback by Jaelyn Page to force the extra session.
Stuttgart’s Skye DaSilva Mathis dropped in a runner with 40 seconds to play in overtime for the extra period’s only field goal. Teammate Carly Sharp provided the hustle to seal the deal, rebounding her own missed free throw with 14 seconds left and stealing Kaiserslautern’s last-chance inbounds opportunity with two seconds remaining.
Sullens scored nine of her team-high 12 points in the fourth quarter, sidling into gaps in the Raider defense and confidently launching her deadly deep ball.
“I am pretty tiny, so it’s easy to sneak around on the court,” Sullens said. “I’m usually open on the wing. I just got the shot and then took it.
“I knew that my team needed it.”
The dramatic game lived up to its billing as one of the more anticipated matchups of the regular season, pitting the reigning champions against the rising contender boasting what had been the last unbeaten conference record in Division I. The one-loss Panthers moved into a tie for the Division I lead, a deadlock that will be broken by the outcome of Saturday’s immediate rematch.
The Raiders responded to the big-game environment, thoroughly outplaying the Panthers for three and a half quarters before collapsing late. Star senior Le’Jhanique Brown poured in a game-high 28 points, including a half-court halftime buzzer-beater that, at the time, was emblematic of an evening in which everything seemed to go right for Kaiserslautern.
Everything, that is, but the ending.
“They just believed in themselves,” Hess said of her victorious Panthers. “That’s probably the most important part.”
Kaiserslautern 53, Stuttgart 46: The Raiders finished with a flourish to earn a doubleheader split for the home school.
Kaiserslautern outscored the Panthers 16-5 in the fourth quarter, reversing a trend of late-game miscues that had cost the Raiders earlier in the winter. Raiders head coach Corey Sullivan was thrilled to see his team calmly execute “what we worked on for the last three months” and win going away.
“When they do what’s right, they’re pretty good,” Sullivan said of his squad. “When they play together, they’re pretty good.”
Kaiserslautern’s Isaak Pacheco scored a game-high 18 points, while teammate Eric Santiago scored seven of his 13 points in the fourth quarter. Gavin Abney led the Panthers with nine.
Aside from Saturday's rematch against the Panthers, the Raiders have just one more game, next weekend against divisional rival Wiesbaden, before entering the European tournament at Wiesbaden on Feb. 21.
Sullivan hopes Friday's steady win will chart a smooth course to the postseason.
“It gave the opportunity for the guys to get some confidence,” Sullivan said of the win. “Hopefully we can roll on from here.”