TRAVERSE CITY — Even down 15 early in the third quarter, the Frankfort Panthers never lost hope.
Frankfort forced overtime with 18 seconds left in regulation, then went on to beat Baldwin 69-65 in a stirring opener of a Class D regional basketball doubleheader at Traverse City Central on Monday night.
The Panthers (19-5) will face unbeaten Bellaire (23-0) in Wednesday’s championship game. The Eagles held off upset-minded Suttons Bay 43-37 in the nightcap.
Frankfort will be seeking its first regional title since 1975.
That opportunity almost ended Monday. Frankfort, which never led in regulation, trailed 42-27 just over a minute into the third quarter.
“We’ve been down like that before so we knew we weren’t out of it,” sophomore center David Loney said. “We kept fighting to the end. That’s what our team does. That’s what we’ve been taught from day one. This is an amazing feeling, nothing like it in the world. I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”
Loney, who battled foul trouble most of the night, scored the tying basket that forced overtime. He finished with 25 points. Senior Owen Stratton sparked the second-half comeback, scoring 20 of his game-high 28 in the third and fourth quarters.
“Heck of a team win,” Stratton said. “We were down, but we knew we could come back. We kept our heads in it and kept playing hard.”
Stratton, the only senior in the starting lineup, nailed five 3-pointers.
“I was just trying to do whatever I could to help our team come back and get the win,” he said.
Frankfort battled back from that double-digit deficit to tie the game at 55-all on a Loney basket with 1:56 left. But Baldwin star Brandon Childress responded with two scores to put his team up four, 59-55.
Loney matched those two baskets in the final minute to send it to the extra session.
In overtime, freshman Kole Hollenbeck stepped up, scoring Frankfort’s first six points and staking the Panthers to a 65-62 lead. Loney tallied with 31 seconds left to push the margin to five.
Loney did his damage in the paint, despite playing with four fouls since the 4:04 mark in the third quarter.
“I think it just came down to making basketball plays,” Baldwin coach Scott Pedigo said. “We just didn’t box out. We got poor at boxing out that last three or four minutes of regulation. And it carried over into overtime. We had a couple chances to stop that and just rebound the ball and hold onto it.”
“I tip my hat to them,” he added. “We had a nice lead. We tried everything with timeouts to keep the momentum. After they got that ball back and tied it, we just lost the momentum. It was a big battle from there on out.”
Andon Ware led Baldwin with 24 points and nine rebounds. Childress, who fouled out early in overtime, added 23 points and 12 rebounds.
Hollenbeck contributed 10 to the Frankfort attack.
“That was key,” Panthers coach Reggie Manville said of Hollenbeck’s contributions.
Manville said Frankfort was able to rally because the Panthers “stayed together as a team.”
Of course, it helped that Frankfort played better defensively in the second half and that Stratton caught fire offensively.
“Owen’s been unbelievable lately,” Manville said.
Manville said playing a tough schedule helped Monday night, too.
“We beat Cedarville and they won a district,” he said. “We beat Harbor Springs and they won a district. We beat Maple City-Glen Lake and they won a district. We beat Suttons Bay and they won a district.
“We played some tough competition. Games like this, that’s where it shows because you’ve been through a lot of wars.”
Bellaire went through one in the nightcap. The Eagles led by as many as nine early in the third quarter, but could not put the Norsemen away.
“This time of the year, with the caliber of teams you’re going to run into, you’ve got to survive and we managed to do that,” Bellaire coach Stan Sexton said. “These kids are competitors. When we played Suttons Bay the first time we won by 20, but it was much closer than that. These kids reached down and responded tonight and we have to do it again Wednesday because that’s a very good ball club at Frankfort.”
Denny Hall and Drew Bailey paced the Eagles with 11 points each. Tyler Thornton added 10.
Logan Mikesell netted 12 for Suttons Bay (10-13), which had won seven of its last eight entering the contest.
“They (Norsemen) play in a much stronger, more aggressive league than we play in,” Sexton said. “We kept referring to that (first) Suttons Bay game as to how those kids played hard, strong defense. And that’s what we’re going to be up against from here on out. The soft defensive teams are gone.”
The Eagles lost Hall on fouls with 2:57 remaining. Bellaire was up 38-34 at that point, but the Norsemen could not capitalize.
“Our offense kind of stalled the second half,” Suttons Bay coach Ron Anderson said. “We had a hard time getting passes into the post. They’re a good team. When we got Hall out of the game, we thought we could make a move. We just didn’t execute our plays at the end.”
Nonetheless, it was quite a turnaround to the season for the Norsemen.
“I fully expected to be here,” Anderson said. “I thought we were good enough to win our district. When we walked off the court the first time I told Stan (Sexton), ‘I think we’re going to see you again.’ If we do, we’re district champs, and that’s coming a long way for a team that was 3-11.”