PETAL – Despite opening region play with an undefeated record, Petal found itself trying to overcome not having played a game in over a month and inexperience as Meridian defeated the Panthers 60-50 on Tuesday.
The Panthers’ loss to the Wildcats was their first game since Dec. 1 after dealing with a COVID-19 outbreak and a two-week hiatus over the holiday break.
“We are trying to find out who we are still,” Petal coach Todd Kimble said. “Only playing six games and then starting district is tough, especially with the time we have been off. It’s almost like we are starting over, but that’s not an excuse by any stretch. It’s just been a while since we have been up and down on the court against somebody.”
Kimble’s main concern heading into the matchup is how his team’s inexperience would fare against traditional basketball powerhouse Meridian (5-3).
Petal (6-1) held a small lead over Meridian in the first quarter. After a scoreless two and a half minutes to start the game, Meridian held a 5-2 lead, but the Panthers surged ahead behind junior Jamar Jenkins, who scored eight of his 13 points in the first quarter.
“He’s one of the guys that have the most court experience than anyone else on the team,” Kimble said. “He’s been in that situation. But you have to have all five guys on the same page, and right now, we don’t have that. Jamar’s ability to score the basketball is really good.”
Petal continued to find early success and held as much as a 5-point lead over Meridian in the second quarter. The quarter saw five lead changes and three ties, but in the final seconds before the end of the half, the Wildcats shifted the momentum by taking the lead 30-27.
Out of the half, the Wildcats went on an 11-3 run to jump out to a 41-30 lead. Meridian’s success was the ability to force Petal into committing turnovers. The Panthers showed glimpses of struggling with traps that led to several turnovers in the first half. As a result, the Wildcats began to full-court press, which forced more turnovers and ultimately impaired the Petal offense.
“They said that they were going to try and make it as ugly as they can and trap everywhere all over the floor and see what they can do with it,” Kimble said. “We didn’t handle it (well) right after the half, and they decided that’s where they were going to be the rest of the game.”
The Panthers were outscored 17-6 in the third quarter. Meridian extended its lead to as much as 16 points, but Petal managed to close the lead in the final minutes with its free-throw shooting.
“It was too many trips in the game where we weren’t doing anything,” Kimble said. “We just kind of threw the playbook out the window. I just didn’t have five guys on the same page. They also hurt us bad on the offensive glass, and they hurt us with dribble penetration. Those are two things that I was concerned about. We turned the basketball over by putting ourselves in bad situations.”
The most effective source of offense for Petal was free throws as the Panthers scored 11 of its 23 second-half points from free throws. Junior Xavier Fortenberry, who led Petal with 14 points, scored 10 of his points with free throws, all of which came in the second half.
Meridian notably had three players score in the double-digits, with Jon Vaughn leading the Wildcats with 14 points.
“We’re a young basketball team with not much experience,” Kimble said. “We’re an inexperienced team. I knew what Meridian was going to do. We had a game plan for everything that they did. When the game gets that fast, and you have guys in there that are that inexperienced, bad things will happen.”
According to Kimble, the team will have to continue to try and overcome its lack of experience.
“Austin Abrams is a 10th grader (who scored 11 points) with almost zero high school experience,” Kimble said. “Xay Fortenberry has probably got eight minutes of court time before this year. Cam Lewis (who scored four points) is in the same situation. He played football last year, so he got here late, and he almost never got in this season. We have so much new stuff, and we are fighting that right now, but that’s part of it. If we do it right, we’ll get better, and if we don’t then, we won’t be very good.”
For Kimble, the ideal identity of his team is to become a defensive team to overcome the roster’s lack of size.
“I think defense has got to be our identity because of our size,” Kimble said. “I don’t think we have gotten there yet. I think we are way behind (compared) to teams that I’ve had in the past. I think that has to be No. 1. Offensively we have the ability to score the basketball. We can play faster, but we have to defend better. If you are turning the basketball over then, you have to be able to stop the other team pretty regularly.”
Petal will next host Oak Grove on Friday at 6 p.m.