BUCKLEY — The Frankfort Panthers make you play their game, whether you like it or not.
The Panthers produced a winning formula since head coach Dan Loney took over in 2018. Combine Loney’s style with 6-foot-7 Jack Stefanski and a supporting cast predicated on defense and the result is two regional titles in as many attempts for Frankfort.
Frankfort added another Division 4 regional championship to its banners with a 50-41 victory over Lake Leelanau St. Mary at Buckley gymnasium Thursday night.
The win gives the Panthers revenge for a 49-44 loss March 6, the first by the Eagles over Frankfort in decades.
Lake Leelanau St. Mary made its first appearance in the regional round of the playoffs in 48 years and was looking for its first trip to the quarterfinals since 1950. The Panthers return to the quarterfinals in back-to-back seasons that have reached this point — they were scheduled to play Brethren in the district final in 2020 before the postseason was canceled because of COVID-19 — and hope to make another run to the final like in 2019.
Frankfort’s defense held the Eagles almost 20 points under their season average, a plan instituted by Loney over the past two days. Lake Leelanau sophomore stars Dylan Barnowski and Shawn Bramer were a large focus of the Panther’s defensive effort after they scorched them earlier this season.
“We knew they like to score in the 70s and 80s and we like to keep teams in the 40s,” Frankfort junior Blake Miller said. “We knew we would get the win if we could keep them at about 40, because defense is a big part of our program and a big part of our game plan tonight.”
Miller said the team practiced stopping the fast break incessantly Wednesday to stop the Eagles’ high-flying attack and limit them into a half-court offense.
The Panthers dictated the pace of the game following a 15-4 run that closed the first quarter to give them a 17-9 lead. Stopping what Loney said was a potential “track meet” was essential, and his team did that by limiting rebounds and outlet passes in transition.
“They’re a heck of a team for one and they love to play fast so they can score in the 60s and 70s,” Loney said. “We felt that if we could get up eight or 10 points, we could control the tempo of the game. Once we could control the tempo of the game, they kind of had to play our game.“
After shutting down the fast break, the Panthers stayed patient and found the shots they wanted — many of which ended up with looks inside to Stefanski, who ended the game with 27 points and 10 rebounds, three of which were offensive and in the first half to push his team to a lead.
“We had some good looks; we just weren’t able to knock them down,” Eagles head coach Matt Barnowski said. “They did a heck of a job on the offensive boards and limiting us to only one, sometimes two shots. They were a little bit more aggressive and that makes all the difference in the world sometimes.”
The Eagles never pulled closer than seven points after falling behind in the first half. Dylan Barnowski still managed to net 20 points to lead Lake Leelanau and Bramer scored 10 and August Schaub nine.
The Buckley gym was filled to the brim with fans donning both the blue and purple, and the atmosphere is something to remember, Barnowski said.
“We haven’t had this taste in 48 years now and it felt kind of good,” Matt Barnowski said. “The biggest thing about that is our community. It helped bring a small community together and they’re super proud of our boys and I’m so damn proud of our boys.
“I’m very happy with the future you know those kids they put in a lot of time and you know their work ethic is unmatched. We’ve got a good supporting cast as well and our plans are to be back here next year.”
Loney said his team already experienced a deep playoff run and this season’s taxing three-game-a-week schedule only further prepared his players for a tough regional week.
“It’s huge for the guys,” Loney said. “They know it and they know what to expect. They know the atmosphere and they kind of know the schedule. We know how fast it comes at us, so we can focus more on the basketball end of things and just everything else takes care of itself.”
Adam Mills added seven points and three rebounds for Frankfort, Daniel Newbold five points and Miller four. The Panthers totaled eight offensive rebounds and made 12 second-chance points off those boards.
The Panthers (17-5) face off with Mt. Pleasant Sacred Heart (16-1) Tuesday at Houghton Lake.