The Starr’s Mill boys basketball team earned the respect of many teams in Class AAAAA this season.
For years, teams overlooked the Panthers on the hardwood. They were considered an inferior opponent that could be beaten with ease. That narrative changed this season as Starr’s Mill evolved into a perennial title contender. On the heels of a Sweet Sixteen appearance last year, the Panthers won a school-record 22 games, a Region 5-A championship, and made it to the Elite Eight for the first time ever.
In perhaps the biggest game in school history, they also gave a solid Hiram Hornets team a run for their money. The Panthers battled and showed moxie in hostile territory. Unfortunately, they fell 47-35 to Hiram, but they also proved that their future is bright.
“I am proud of them as they have set the standard for Starr’s Mill basketball,” head coach Brandon Hutchins said. “I just told the senior group that they set the bar. They had 22 wins and a region championship. Now, I think when people play us, they will say those guys will give you a game.”
Hiram didn’t just get a game, they went to war against Starr’s Mill. The Panthers wouldn’t go away as they battled the Hornets all night.
Hiram started hot with a 12-0 run, headlined by seven points from senior guard Raphael Rodgers. They played aggressive defense to stymie Starr’s Mill offensive attack. The Hornets also forced the Panthers to start 0-for-7 from the field.
It wasn’t until 3:59 left in the first quarter that senior guard Drew Hudson got the Panthers on the board. He hit two free throws and had all four of the Panthers’ points in the first quarter. As a result, Starr’s Mill found themselves down 14-4 after the opening frame.
Hutchins had to settle his team down during the quarter change. He felt that the opportunities where available, they just had to knock down the shot. He admitted that his team were a little taken aback by the Hornets’ hot start.
“I think it set us back a little bit as we aren’t a good catch-up team,” Hutchins said. “We couldn’t get anything going offensively. Julian Lynch was there at the rim, but it wasn’t falling. We just struggled all night offensively.”
The shooting woes continued in the second quarter. The Panthers tried to attack the Hiram interior, but the sheer size of Hiram 6-foot-9 forward Nathan Presnell denied them at the rim. His presence forced Hutchins to utilize returning junior Nate Allison in limited minutes. Allison was coming back from an injury and played well in neutralizing Presnell.
The strategy worked as the Panthers clawed back within five points heading into halftime. They held Hiram to five points in the second quarter and were down 19-14. Defense set the tone and aided the offensive pursuits of Hudson. He had four points in the quarter to spark a 9-5 run.
After halftime, Starr’s Mill continued their stout defense. They got to within three points of the lead before going cold midway through the quarter. It was the closest they would get in the game.
“That has been our strong point all year, and I think it kept us in the game,” Hutchins said. “We got it to three points and we just couldn’t put it away.”
Hiram started to attack the basket and stretched the lead to 29-23 midway through the third quarter. This mentality carried over into the final quarter as Starr’s Mill couldn’t contain sophomore guard Arshad Crepsac. He hit a crucial 3-pointer to give the Hornets a 10-point lead with 2:45 remaining in the game.
With the score 36-26, Starr’s Mill gave it one more ferocious rally. They leaned on Hudson as he scored eight points in the quarter. He briefly cut it 39-32 before the final horn sounded, but his 18 points on the night weren’t enough to give the Panther’s a victory.
After the game, Hutchins said he was proud of his team’s senior leadership. He believed that the integrity they showed tonight and all season will help the program grow. He also wanted to thank the fans, students, staff, and administrators for their support.
With Allison and a couple other players coming back, it will be chance for Starr’s Mill to get back next season. Hutchins hopes that his team will use the experience to make it happen.
“I think they have seen how to be winners and what good senior leadership looks like,” Hutchins said. “They’ve just got to continue working and getting better. We will come back next year and go at it again.”