Seven minutes dashed the state title aspirations for the Midlothian Panthers. The shots that typically fall simply did not during a stretch of basketball that can only be summarized as uncharacteristic.
Those seven minutes in the third and fourth quarters Thursday night in the 61-49 5A state semifinal loss against No. 4 Port Arthur Memorial do not define the Midlothian Panthers, though. Not now. Not tomorrow. And, not two decades from now.
The ninth-ranked Panthers won 28 games in a season that starred disaster in the eyes 10 games through the District 10-5A schedule. Yet, there they were — riding a nine-game winning streak after knocking off three top-15 teams to reach the state tournament for the first time in program history.
“This was magical,” said senior Kaden Archie of the Panthers’ playoff run while sitting at the table in the postgame presser alongside head coach Steven Middleton, and fellow seniors Caleb Jordan and Evan Marshall. “We didn’t end it how we wanted to, but at the same time, I couldn’t be prouder of the guys. Caleb has been with me since my sophomore year, and he is my best friend. Evan and I met freshman year, and he is my brother now, and we’ve become best friends. I wouldn’t trade these guys for nothing. This run has been magical and a great experience for us.”
Archie led the Panthers with 18 points, five blocks and seven rebounds. He scored 12 of his 18 points in the second half in the Alamodome in front of a raucous and large Midlothian contingent. Jordan scored nine points and recorded a team-high three steals.
Marshall finished with 13 points on 3-of-8 shooting from beyond the arc. It was also Marshal who bookended the seven-minute scoreless drought for the Panthers — from the 2:33 mark in the third quarter to the 3:33 mark of the fourth quarter — with a three-pointer and floater in the lane. His trey put the Panthers ahead, 33-30, for their only lead of the second half. The bucket to end the skid came in transition after Archie went high up on the glass to block a Titan layup attempt.
Port Arthur Memorial outscored Midlothian 19-2 over the seven-minute stretch.
“They were good,” Middleton said. “They are a really tough team. After we took the lead 33-30, [Tailan Wesley], that kid got warm. We didn’t have an answer for him. […] We watched a lot of film on him, and he caught us with our hands down a couple of times on defense and made some big shots.”
Middleton added, “We made some uncharacteristic mistakes on defense. When you play against a good team if you make those kinds of errors, they make you pay for them. Something else is that I thought their physicality got to us down the stretch.”
Wesley, who made his first of four threes early in the first quarter to put Port Arthur Memorial ahead 10-9, finished with a game-high 24 points on 9-of-15 shooting from the floor and 4-of-8 from three-point land.
Archie was quick to point to Wesley’s hot hand as one of the difference makers down the stretch.
“We definitely tried to push the tempo a little bit (in the second half), but they matched our intensity,” Archie said. “[Wesley] came up with some big shots and they got some momentum from that. We turned the ball over a couple of times, and after that, it was kind of downhill.”
Midlothian quickly pieced together a 13-4 run over the two minutes of game time late in the fourth quarter, but the Titans already had the game well in hand.
For the Panthers, Swahn Gibson added six points and two assists before fouling out late in the fourth quarter, while Zeke' Bennett had two points and Nyk Madison scored one.
The Panthers, who shot just 30 percent from the floor (15-50) in the game, finished the season 28-11. Port Arthur Memorial improved to 33-5 and faces No. 2 Justin Northwest in the 5A state championship at 3 p.m. Saturday in San Antonio.
For Middleton, though the loss brought an “abrupt ending” to the season, the support he received from the players, their families and the Midlothian community at-large made the ride more than worth taking.
“They are all definitely responsible for bringing Midlothian into the mix in the DFW area. But more than anything, they are good people,” Middleton said. “The thing about basketball at this time of the year is that it is an abrupt ending. It is so sudden, and it hurts. It hurts deeply. At the same time, this experience…”
He added, “thank you to the Midlothian community for accepting me. I hope we made you proud.”
Before departing the press conference, Archie took the microphone to thank Middleton. There was little doubt about its sincerity or the raw emotion on the faces of the three players as Archie spoke.
“Some of y’all see us and think we just come up here to play ball. But this man right here, he did a lot for me personally and not just as a basketball player, but as a man,” Archie began. “There was one point in my career I remember we were playing a game and a DI college coach, and I wasn’t getting a lot of looks, came to watch us play. I scored 23 points, and I looked that night and saw on Twitter that he offered one of the kids who we played against. It broke my heart. I wanted to quit.
“But he (Middleton) wouldn’t let me. A lot of coaches wouldn’t care about that. But he doesn’t care about me just as a player but as a man. I wouldn’t trade him for the world, and I love him to death like he is part of my family because he is. His wife and daughters welcomed me in, and they accepted me and took me for all of my faults and all of my talents. I just want to say — on behalf of me, Caleb and Evan — that we love you to death. And thank you for being there for us.”
With a nod and smile, Middleton agreed, “We are family.”
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith