Panthers wrap up seasons at divisional tournament

Mikaela Koski
Thursday, February 28, 2019
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SCN photo by Mikaela Koski
         Panther Connor McNeil drives to the basket against Melstone’s Brody Grebe. See our photo gallery for more pictures!

Both Park City basketball teams finished their seasons last week at the Southern C Divisional Tournament in Laurel.


The Panthers kicked off the tournament against the 4C third-seed Ekalaka Bulldogs.

The first quarter was tight, with neither team leading by more than three points as Park City and Ekalaka struggled to grab the upper hand. Going into the second quarter, the Panthers had a slight 14-11 lead. The Park City momentum that began at the end of the first quarter continued into the second – a 12-0 run gave the Panthers some breathing room, but the game was still close going into halftime with Park City only up 25-20.

A 6-0 run to begin the second half kick-started the Panthers, and by the end of the third quarter, the Panthers’ lead had stretched to 38-29. During the final minutes both offenses struggled, but although Park City only scored one field goal in the fourth quarter, they still managed to outscore Ekalaka 17-10 in the final period behind more than a dozen successful free throws. The Panthers won the first round game 55-39.

Leading the Park City offense was senior Connor McNeil with 24 points. Senior Austin Popp scored 10, and junior Garrett McMillen added seven. Seth Popp, a senior, led the Panthers with nine rebounds. Austin Popp and junior Austin Dennis each grabbed six rebounds.

As a team, Park City was 63 percent from the courtesy stripe, making 16 of 25 attempts in the second half alone.

The victory over the Bulldogs set the Panthers up for a very difficult semi-final game against the third-ranked team in the state – the Melstone Broncs.

The Broncs came out hot right off the tipoff, and the Park City offense took too long to find an answer. As the Panther offense struggled to find a rhythm, Melstone hit 10-of-17 3-point shots in the first half, in addition to 11-of-16 free throws and 13 field goals on the way to a 32-point halftime lead.

Park City found more success offensively in the second half, but it was too late. Melstone continued to add to its lead for a 77-37 final score.

Senior Tristen Johnstone took the lead for the Panther offense early in the game, hitting three 3-point shots in the first quarter and scoring 12 of Park City’s 15 first-half points. He finished the game with 12 points. McMillen scored seven, and McNeil added seven points and 11 rebounds.

The loss to Melstone sent the Panthers to a loser-out game Saturday morning against the Bridger Scouts.

The Bridger offense was able to outscore Park City 17-8 in the first quarter, but the Panthers answered with an 18-point second quarter to cut the Scout lead to three points, 29-26.

Both offenses had a spark coming out of halftime, with Park City again scoring 18 points. Unfortunately for the Panthers, Bridger put up 23 points in the third quarter to extend the Scouts’ advantage to 52-44. Despite Park City’s best efforts, a comeback was not to be. Bridger won the game 69-58; the loss brought the Panthers’ season to a close.

McNeil led the Park City offense for the last time, putting up 16 points against the Scouts. Sophomore Tucker Johnstone added 15 points of his own, and Austin Popp scored 11 in his final game as a Panther. Popp led the team with 10 rebounds, and Tristen Johnstone followed with seven rebounds.

Park City Head Coach Ben Southworth tipped his hat to Bridger and Melstone. He noted they are both good teams, and he expects Melstone to leave the state tournament with some kind of hardware.

“I am very proud of how we grew throughout the season; I think a lot of people counted us out at the beginning of the year, so in a lot of ways we exceeded expectations,” Southworth explained. “We will be missing the leadership and hard work of Connor McNeil, Tristen Johnstone, Seth Popp, and Austin Popp. Those four are great young men, and it will be exceptionally hard to fill the void they leave after graduating.”

Although the season ended a little sooner than he would have liked, Southworth said that is okay, because now it’s “back to the drawing board,” adding, “the boys are ready to get back into the gym and put in some hard work so we can compete next year.”

The Panther coach mentioned how this year the conference was full of young teams, like Bridger, that will be practicing hard in the offseason to improve, so Park City will “have a lot of work to put in if we want to stay near the top of the district.”

As was the case all season, the Panthers are looking forward to the challenge, and South-worth is hopeful “we can reload and come back strong next year.”


The Lady Panthers also started divisional tournament play against Ekalaka. The Lady Bulldogs were the number-one team coming out of the 4C district; Park City was the fourth seed from 6C.

Senior Blakely Verke kicked-off the game with a quick 3-point shot to give the Panthers the early lead. Ekalaka answered, but Park City was able to stay ahead until about 1:45 left in the first quarter, when the Lady Bulldogs grabbed their first lead of the game, 10-9. By the end of the first period, Ekalaka had the 12-11 advantage.

As the second quarter counted down, the Lady Bulldogs attempted to extend the lead, but the Panthers resisted the effort and kept the game close. At halftime, Ekalaka was up 23-22.

Coming out of the break, the battle continued. After giving up a five-point lead to the Lady Bulldogs, Park City brought the game within one point again with about five minutes left in the third quarter. About 30 seconds later, a pair of Panther free throws to take the lead did not fall, and Ekalaka took advantage of the slight break in momentum for Park City. The Lady Bulldogs went on a 12-0 run to end the quarter and add to their lead, bringing the score to 41-28.

The Panthers did not give up, and a 7-0 Park City run about halfway through the final quarter got the Panthers within six, 45-39. Despite the Panthers’ best efforts, though, Ekalaka stole the momentum and stopped the Park City comeback. The Lady Bulldogs won 54-41.

Senior Breanne Smith led the Panthers with nine points and eight rebounds, followed by junior Hayley Story and senior Alyx Grabowska with eight points and four rebounds each.

Park City put up the best fight against Ekalaka when compared to other teams at the tournament. The Lady Bulldogs beat Bridger by 30 in the semi-finals and beat Wibaux by 20 in the championship.

Panther Head Coach Justine Taylor noted, “Ekalaka is a very quick and aggressive team and we managed to take care of the ball and limit our turnovers, and I think that made a huge difference in our performance as a whole towards the end of the season.”

Mirroring the boys, the Lady Panthers faced the Melstone Lady Broncs the second game of the tournament. The two teams met on the loser-out side of the bracket.

With the season on the line, both groups came out to play. The opening two minutes were scoreless, but Melstone got on the board first. Park City was close behind, and the Panthers grabbed the lead about halfway through the first quarter. At the end of the initial minutes, the game was tied at seven apiece.

In the second quarter, the Park City offense stalled, and Melstone’s star freshman Draya Wacker took full advantage. She single-handedly scored 18 points behind several 3-pointers while the Panthers could only come up with three points. Going into halftime, the Lady Broncs had a 25-10 advantage.

During the second half of the game, Park City matched Melstone point-for-point, but it was not enough to simply match the Lady Broncs. The Panthers got within seven points during the fourth quarter, but Park City did not achieve a comeback – the Panthers fell 43-31 in the final game of the season.

Verke led Park City during her final game as a Panther, contributing 10 points and six rebounds. Story put up eight points, and Smith scored seven. Senior Kasidy Robbins and sophomore Makayla Harper each grabbed four rebounds.

Taylor said that entering the Melstone game, Park City knew containing Wacker would be important. “We did a good job in the first quarter against her, but great players like Wacker create and find ways to score,” she explained.

Wacker ended the game with 27 points, and the 18 she scored in the second quarter was the difference in the game. “At halftime we made a defensive adjustment on her and she ended up only having six points in the second half, so that was good,” Taylor added.

She was very proud of her team for not giving up when the score was 25-10 at halftime and fighting back to within a handful of points at one point in the final minutes.

“Overall, the effort and intensity has come a long way for our team this season, and I look forward to building on that going into next season,” Taylor said. “We have a lot of players that will contribute to the team’s success in the years to come.”