Pelham downs Briarwood to advance to sub-regionals, area title game

Published 9:42 pm Monday, February 5, 2024

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By ALEC ETHEREDGE | Managing Editor 

HELENA – A six-point opening quarter led to a bleak start for the Pelham Panthers on Monday, Feb. 5, but they quickly responded with their season on the line against county foe Briarwood.

With the two teams looking to advance to the area tournament championship game and the sub-regional round of the playoffs, it was Briarwood that was able to take a 10-6 lead at the end of the first quarter, but that seemed to awaken the Panthers.

From that point forward, the energy helped Pelham storm back, using a 10-2 run early in the second quarter to take a lead they squandered just once on their way to a 63-58 victory on the floor of their biggest rival at Helena High School. 

Briarwood, however, never did go away quietly.

The Lions showed they were ready for the big game in the opening period with Drew Mears kick-starting a 33-point night with seven points, including two 3-pointers.

That helped Briarwood take a 10-6 advantage early, as Pelham struggled to find an offensive identity.

The Panthers, however, caught fire to start the second quarter with an energetic approach in a physical game, turning it into their up-tempo style of play.

Pelham created opportunities with strong defensive play, which led to a 10-2 run to start the period. Joe Wimberly was key in the stretch, scoring six of points in the quarter and creating other opportunities with his steals defensively.

The Panthers gathered a 16-12 lead after he stole the ball out of a full-court press and laid the ball in. But following a slow stretch of play, Mears answered for Briarwood to cut the deficit back to two points at 16-14.

Eli Lewis, however, wasted no time knocking down a 3-pointer thanks to great ball movement and sharp passes from the Pelham offense. Wimberly then followed with another steal and layup to give Pelham its largest lead of the first half at 21-14.

Briarwood then responded by ending the quarter with a much-needed rally. Josh Thompson sparked the strong finish to the quarter with a big and-1, which was followed by a Mears free throw and layup to make it 21-20 Pelham at the half.

Out of the break, Briarwood, hoping to continue the momentous end to the first half, scored the opening basket of the period on a layup from Garrett Witherington to make it 22-21.

The lead, however, became short-lived and the final of the night for the Lions when Sam Tolbert hit a 3-pointer to answer.

A back-and-forth stretch between the two led to two baskets each from Wimberly and Witherington, a 3-pointer from Dynarian Long and an and-1 from Mears to create a four-point game.

Pelham then built its largest lead to that point in the game shortly after when Wimberly hit a 3-pointer to make it 37-29.

But like they did the majority of the night, the Lions clawed back just as it looked like Pelham was going to pull away.

A free throw and back-to-back baskets from Caleb Keller cut the deficit down to three at 37-34 going to the final quarter.

That led to an exciting final quarter between the two, as they traded baskets early in the frame to create a 46-43 through the first nine points from each team.

Pelham, however, had a key stretch when Jayden Robinson fought through contact for a basket, which was followed by a 3-pointer and two free throws from Long for a five-point stretch from himself to open up the largest lead of the game for either team at 53-43.

But Briarwood never did go away.

The Lions slowly clawed their way back, and made it 57-50 with a minute remaining.

Then, after a Pelham five-second turnover, Mears hit a 3-pointer on the move to his right to make it a four-point game before Keller hit two free throws with 42.1 seconds left to make it a two-point game.

That, however, was as close as Briarwood got.

Two Wimberly free throws were followed by a Briarwood turnover before Tolbert and Long buried two more free throws each to make it 63-58. Mears then hit one last 3-pointer, but it was too little, too late in the five-point loss.

Pelham was led by 18 points from Long, who was clutch from the free throw line at the end, while Wimberly added 16 points and Tolbert 11. Robinson chipped in nine for the Panthers.

Mears finished with a game-high 33 points, while Keller also finished in double figures with 11.

After taking on Helena in the area tournament championship game Wednesday night at Helena, Pelham will now either host or travel for a sub-regional game on Saturday, Feb. 10.