Panthers escape Ironton upset bid

Published 12:00 am Sunday, March 9, 2003

ATHENS, Ohio -- In the excitement of the Division III district finals atmosphere, the Chesapeake Panthers found a hole in the D-zone.

So the Panthers used their inside O-zone offense to get layups, then hit some clutch free throws in overtime to hold off the upset-minded Ironton Fighting Tigers 49-43 Friday and lay claim to the district championship.

Chesapeake's inside tandem of 6-foot-7 Matt Rucker and 6-4 Aaron Gossett was slowed down but never stopped. Rucker had 14 points and nine rebounds while Gossett finished with 13 points and seven boards.

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"We worked on the 2-3 zone all week in practice. We found holes where we could get inside and score," Rucker said.

Ironton coach Roger Zornes employed a 2-3 zone to force the Panthers to shoot outside. But the patient Panthers offense was able to find ways of getting the ball inside and scoring. Chesapeake was 19 of 41 from the field and 14 fields goals were layups.

"We didn't do a very good job on our 2-3. We let them have some openings they shouldn't have had," Zornes said. "We forced some turnovers but we didn't convert. That's kind of our bag. That's what gets us going."

Chesapeake had 16 turnovers to Ironton's 13.

It marks the seventh trip to the regionals for the Panthers under coach Norm Persin. The veteran coach said the difference may have been the Panthers experienced lineup that featured four senior starters and five who played. Ironton did not play a senior.

"I think the seniors were the difference. We were in that spot a year ago," Persin said, referring to the Panthers loss in the district finals. "We didn't play that well, but give Ironton credit. They had a lot to do with how we played.

"Any time you move on in the tournament, you play one bad game. I hope this was the one bad one."

Chesapeake, 21-1, will play at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday in the regional semifinals at Ohio University against the only team to beat them this season, Marion Pleasant. The Panthers lost their first game 39-38 in the National Hoops Classic at Wellston.

The other two regional qualifiers are Richmond Dale Southeastern and No. 1-ranked Sugarcreek Garaway.

"I didn't want to go out in the district. As seniors, our goal is to make it to the state and we think we can accomplish that," Rucker said.

Chesapeake led by as much as 24-12 with 3:00 left in the second quarter on a 3-pointer by Nick Karle. But Ironton was undaunted.

Joe Zornes and Dennis Gagai each answered with a 3-pointer, and then Josh Sands' driving layup cut the gap to 24-20 with 16 seconds left.

Brigham Waginger came up with a steal and made a nice pass inside to Patrick Kouns who scored with two seconds left in the half and it was 24-22.

Rucker scored to start the second half, but Ironton went on a 5-0 run to take its first lead since early in the game at 27-26. Gossett followed up a missed shot and Chesapeake was back in front.

Down 34-29, Gagai converted a 3-point play and then hit a 3-pointer just before the end of the quarter to give Ironton a 35-34 lead.

"We were just looking to get a lead and make them catch up and see how they'd react," coach Zornes said. "We just couldn't get in any rhythm all night."

A pass inside was deflected by the Ironton defense to start the fourth quarter, but the ball rolled to the corner in front of the Chesapeake bench where P. J. Rase picked up the ball and buried a 3-pointer as the Panthers regained the lead.

Gagai hit an 18-footer to tie the game, but a layup by Gossett with 2:42 left gave Chesapeake a 43-40 lead. Waginger made the first of two foul shots with 2:10 left and converted both ends of a one-and-one with 1:27 left to tie the game.

Chesapeake missed a shot with 27 seconds left and Joe Zornes rebounded. But Gagai's long 3-point attempt just before the end of regulation failed to connect and the game went into overtime.

Rucker scored inside with about a minute gone in overtime to give Chesapeake the lead for good as Ironton failed to score in the extra four minute period.

A missed one-and-one attempt by the Panthers was rebounded by Ironton's Derique Bacon, but an Ironton pass was deflected and picked up by Daniel Thompson were was fouled with 21 seconds left. Thompson made both foul shots and it was 47-43.

Gossett hit two free throws with nine seconds left completed the scoring.

Gagai led all scorers with 16 points. Joe Zornes had 10 points while Bacon had eight rebounds for Ironton which finished 20-4.