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Eli Cooper-Leavitt shoots over the defense at the Feb. 22 game against Dallas.

INDEPENDENCE — Wrapping up their regular season with a 45-41 win against the Dallas Dragons, the Central Panthers boys basketball team moves on to the first round of playoffs this Friday.

At some points during this season, it wasn’t clear whether or not the team would make it this far. But the boys have hunkered down and worked hard the last few weeks for another shot at a state title.

“I’m proud of the guys,” said head coach Tim Kreta. “It’s difficult when you don’t hold your own destiny in your hand, to have to come out and get yourself excited with the possibility to play another week to hear if you’re gonna win or lose. ... So now we’re in to the final playoff spot at the four seed. So one more week for us. It’s been a roller coaster year; hopefully there’s still better basketball to be played. I look forward to seeing what these guys can bring this week.”

Last year, the Panthers (11-13 overall, 9-7 Mid-Willamette Conference) lost 56-31 at Wilsonville in the first playoff game.

They don’t want that to happen this year.

“We just need to put in a lot of work this week to prepare because we’re gonna play a good team on the road most likely,” said senior Kaleb Kantola. “So we just have to leave everything on the court right now. No regrets.”

If the Panthers win their game on Friday, they move on to the elite-eight to get to Gil Coliseum at Oregon State University for the state championships.

“Our goal has always been Gil,” said senior Brendan Lesmeister, “so now we have one more game, just another game to get there.”

The first quarter of their final league game had Dallas trailing 14-7, but the Panthers opened up the second quarter with sloppy play and a lack of energy, allowing the Dragons multiple chances to turn over the ball and trim the margin on the score.

Going into the locker rooms the score was 25-17.

“I mean, it was a big game that we have to win, it’s probably one of the biggest games of the year,” Lesmeister said. “We probably didn’t have as much as energy as we should have for the entire game. They came back with that Jack kid with a lot of 3-pointers, and he put them in a position to win, which, we did our best on them, but, I mean, we just needed to close that out that whole game.”

At the start of the fourth quarter, the Panthers led 36-29. With just a few minutes left on the clock, a foul against Dallas put Jack Anderson on the line, bumping the score 43-41.

Lesmeister found himself at the free throw line with 36 seconds of the game to go, notching two more points onto the Panthers score board.

It was a victory, but a narrow one.

“Nobody’s ever gonna accuse of us not making games interesting in the last three minutes of the game,” Kreta said. “We’ll always find a way to make it interesting.”

“I mean, we didn’t have the best game, but we won and that’s all that matters,” Kantola added. At press time, their Friday night opponent was undetermined.

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