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Jan. 29, 2017

Blair boys' basketball suffers tough 59-52 loss

by Nate Bodner, Sports Editor
The Blair Blazers (7-6) lost to the Paint Branch Panthers (10-5) by a score of 59-52 on Wednesday night. Paint Branch had built a comfortable lead by halftime, but the Blazers nearly battled back to tie it before Paint Branch secured the victory. Missed free throws and countless turnovers cost Blair a chance at an upset over a Panthers' team that took down the locally ranked Kennedy Cavaliers last week.

The game started slow, with both teams missing open shots early. Paint Branch scored the game's first point after getting a steal and drawing a foul against Blair sophomore Ethan Ellis. The Panthers would go on to increase their lead to 4-0 and keep Blair scoreless through almost the first five minutes of the game. Senior guard Kendall Douglas spun past his defender and hit a lay-up to put the Blazers on the board. But, unused to Paint Branch's high pressure defense, Blair committed many costly turnovers and were unable to generate any offense in the first quarter. The Panthers held a 13-2 lead after the first.

According to Douglas, the Panthers full court press on defense unnerved the Blair guards early on, which led to turnovers and limited offense. "In the first quarter we let their press rattle us and stop us from getting into our offense," said Douglas. Blair had little time in the offensive half of the court in the first and struggled to get open shots. The team woke up after the first and did a good job of finding the weak spots of the Panther defense. "From the second quarter through the rest of the game, I think we did a good job attacking their pressure and exploiting holes in their defense," Douglas said.

In the second, Blair was able to get the offense going and open up the scoring, with junior Bobga Gang scoring on a rebound and layup in the first minute. The game went back and forth, with both teams scoring on consecutive possessions. It was 17-8 Paint Branch after a Panther layup, and Blair was poised to respond, but Paint Branch forced a backcourt violation, and capitalized on the ensuing possession, enlarging their lead to nine points with five minutes remaining in the half.

Blairís offense did a good job of drawing fouls and getting points in the second quarter, but the defense was unable to slow down Paint Branch's athletic guards, as their powerful offense scored thirteen more in the second, including a huge three pointer with three minutes left in the half. After a late foul called on Blair center Julius Cobb resulted in a point, the half ended 26-17 Paint Branch.

Even after first half adjustments by Coach Damon Pigrom, the third quarter did not start well for the Blazers, with Paint Branch draining a three on their first possession, then promptly forcing a turnover and draining another three in transition. Less than one minute into the third the score was already 32-17 Paint Branch. The Blair crowd was silenced. Blair was finally able to respond with a layup two minutes later, but not before missing two free throws. The Blazers were beginning to break down the Panthers' defense, drawing fouls, getting rebounds and heating up.

All of a sudden, Blair led an 11-2 run to bring the game to 34-28 Paint Branch. Blair's defense had stifled the Panthers since the two early threes allowing only two points since then. But on a breakaway for Blair that was sure to cut the lead to just four points, a Paint Branch forward sprinted back down the court for an insane block reminiscent of LeBron James' comeback block on Andre Iguodala in game seven of the NBA finals last year. Paint Branch snagged the rebound, drove down the court and scored. Shaken up by the last play, Blair lost the ball while bringing it up, which led to a huge dunk from Paint Branch. After the crazy six point swing, Paint Branch had regained a commanding 40-28 lead with two and a half minutes left in the third. Coach Pigrom called a timeout for Blair.

Blair was able to get back on the board after the timeout with a quick jumper, but after a stop on defense, Blair turned the ball over again and the Panthers capitalized. Blair was able to clamp down after this turnover, and once again shrink the Paint Branch with six consecutive points that began with a huge three pointer from Kendall Douglas. Blair would finish out the third quarter with three different players going one of two from the line to make it 44-36 Paint Branch going into the fourth.

The back and forth nature of the game continued into the final quarter. Blair's Ellis and junior Anthony Smith-Davis scored on back to back possessions to cut the lead to four, but Paint Branch was able to get another steal off Blair guard Demetri Cooper and dunk, to once again kill the momentum for Blair. The aggressive defense once again began affecting the Blazer guards, as Paint Branch kept turning steals into points, and built up a 49-42 lead. But once again Blair was able to storm back after a big block from center Julius Cobb ignited the crowd.

Another humongous three from Douglas brought the game to 49-46 with three minutes to go. Blair was unable to faze the Paint Branch guards when they tried to establish a full court press to create turnovers. Paint Branch was able to draw fouls, and make the final free throws to put the game out of reach for the Blazers.

The many turnovers by the Blair offense proved to be extremely costly by the end of the game. Coach Pigrom stressed how big a factor turnovers were in the game. "It was huge. We lost by seven, and we had roughly thirty turnovers," Pigrom said. "Too many wasted possessions."

It was a tough loss for the Blazers, but the game still highlighted positive things for the players. Douglas, who finished the game with team high 19 points, believes that this game shows Blair's toughness and is very confident in his team's ability. "This game shows us that we can play with anyone in the county, and that if we do a better job of executing what [Coach Pigrom] is asking us to do, we can come out with wins." Douglas said.

The Blazers will strive to execute better on Friday when they travel to Springbrook to face the 6-7 Blue Devils at 5:30.



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