SEYMOUR — A quarter-century had elapsed since Jennings County last reigned supreme as regional champion.
With a game plan executed to near perfection, the Panthers put their name back in the record books on Saturday, March 11.
The well-oiled offensive machine, led by sharpshooter Carter Kent, and lockdown defensive strategy lifted Jennings County to a dominant 64-40 victory over Evansville Reitz to bring home another regional trophy for the Panthers’ collection for the first time since 1998.
“I’m so proud of my kids, so proud for our community. Just an unbelievably positive week and day for our community, for our kids,” said Jennings head coach Josh Land. “The amount of work and investment that my players, their parents, their families have put in to getting here is awesome to see it pay off.”
The Panthers controlled the lead for all but the opening three minutes, and used an 8-0 run to create some breathing room in the first quarter. Leading the surge was Kent, who buried his first two 3-point attempts to put Jennings County ahead 14-7.
With the offense rolling, the Panthers’ defensive intensity kept Evansville Reitz out of sync. The opposing Panthers struggled to break through traps and coughed up the ball a number of times trying to get into a rhythm.
“Defensively, I thought we followed our game plan to a ‘T’. We wanted to use Keegan to kind of help off the ball and go make plays, kind of let him roam and do his thing, trap. That required other people to do their thing,” said Land.
Down low, Owen Law took care of business against Evansville Reitz’s big man, Isaac Higgs. Lane Zohrlaut also shut down the opposing Panthers’ best driver, Jayden Sanders. Both efforts, coupled with Manowitz and Kent clamping down on the guards, helped hold Evansville Reitz to nine total points in the second quarter.
“Everybody fulfilled their role to the best of their ability and when we do that, we’re pretty good,” said Land.
Jennings County capitalized with a 10-0 run in the second quarter. Kent buried his third 3-pointer of the half to start the streak, which put the Panthers in a 28-12 lead with about 2:30 to go in the first half.
Kent, Manowitz and Law all connected from long range in the first half. Manowitz drained a deep straight-on 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Jennings County a 35-18 lead at halftime.
Evansville Reitz came in with the intent to press Jennings County, but as the game wore on, it was evident those efforts were ineffective.
“They tried to press us, and Keegan and Carter are the two best guards I’ve seen this year, and we shredded their press, that’s all there is to it,” said Land. “We finished on the other end. We got layups against it. In the half court, we hit some shots.”
Manowitz dropped in a floater and a 3-pointer early in the third quarter to push the advantage to 40-20 for Jennings County. Manowitz ended the day with 15 points.
Midway through the period, both teams spent nearly 1:30 of game action flying back-and-forth across the court, diving for the ball as it continually rolled and flew between teams before Parker Elmore finally ended the saga with a putback tip.
On the next play, Kent added his fourth triple of the night to extend the lead to 23, and a putback at the buzzer sent Jennings County into the final eight minutes of play with a comfortable 49-26 edge.
Kent added two layups in the fourth quarter to round out his 16-point performance. Earlier in the week, Kent had sustained a shoulder injury during practice, but it did not seem to hinder him on Saturday.
“You know, adrenaline’s huge. You play in front of 6,000, 7,000 people like this that are all rooting for you, you don’t feel much pain but we’ve got another week until we play. I’m sure he’ll be 100% healthy by then,” said Land.
With its season on the line, Evansville Reitz turned to Jayden Sanders to pull off a comeback. He scored the first nine points for the opposing Panthers and cut the deficit to 18, but his run was too little too late.
Jennings County was 26 of 44 from the field overall and 6 of 10 on 3-pointers and the Panthers made 5 of 8 at the foul stripe. Reitz was 15 of 37, 3 of 5 on 3-pointers and 8 of 12 at the line. Jennings outrebounded Evansville 22-17 and made 10 turnovers to 14 by Reitz.
As the clock hit zero in a gym filled with mostly Jennings County fans, the celebration 25 years in the works commenced with an eruption of cheers and the entirety of the Panthers student section storming the court to swarm the team.
The journey is not over, though. The Class 4A No. 9 Panthers (24-2) advance to semi-state on Saturday, March 18, and face No. 8 Brownsburg (21-4) in game one at 10 a.m. If the Panthers win, they would face off against the game two winner between No. 1 Ben Davis (30-0) and Bloomington North (19-5) at 8 p.m. on Saturday.
“We got to keep worrying about ourselves. We got to make sure we have our best day of practice everyday and no matter who we play on Saturday, we show up ready with the mindset that we can beat anybody,” said Land.
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