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Trailing by 20 points at halftime of Friday night's Class 4A Bartlett sectional final, Glenbard North's boys basketball players and coaches agreed on one thing:
Victory was still within reach.
The Panthers reached out in the second half and grabbed an 84-81 victory and their first sectional championship since 2002 with a stirring comeback.
"They showed a lot of heart right there in the second half," Panthers coach Joe Larson said. "These kids are winners. I knew they weren't going to give up. We were down 20 at half and I thought we did a good job of executing what we wanted to do. Got some turnovers, got the momentum swinging in our favor there pretty early and it really came down to making plays. We stole the ball a couple of times, hit some big shots and that's how you get back in the ballgame.
"But more than anything it's the way the guys believed in each other. You don't come back from 20 against a team like that without believing you can do it."
"I never stopped believing," Panthers senior Chip Flanigan said. "I knew this game was not over until the fourth-quarter buzzer. I knew we could get back into this game. We've got a lot of weapons."
Morton (22-6) seemingly did everything right in the first half, jumping out to an 11-2 lead. The Mustangs led 29-19 by the end of the first quarter, with guard Greg Carter scoring 21 points in the period on 8-of-10 shooting. Carter finished with a game-high 29 points, making seven 3-pointers, many from several feet behind the arc.
"He was shooting from deep, so you know he can shoot," Larson said, "but you also know he can drive by you. He's so quick. You live on both edges of the sword there. He made some big shots."
"We just came out shooting and Greg came out shooting," Morton junior Weisner Perez said. "I told him, he's our senior. I told him, let it loose. You're knocking it down, keep shooting it. I told him, you have the green light. ... He was hot. The rule is if someone's hot, you give it to the hot man."
Backcourt mate Jarvis Cannon took over in the second quarter, scoring 13 points as the Mustangs grabbed a 52-32 lead at halftime. Their biggest lead was 22 points.
"The first half they did not miss," Flanigan said. "They hit 3s, probably 3 feet behind the 3-point line. It kept going in. They had a lot of energy. At halftime coach told us all we had to do was cut it to 10 by the end of the third quarter, which we did, and then we'll be back in the ballgame."
Pasquale Fiduccia's three-point play and Kendall Holbert's basket got the third quarter off to a good start for the Panthers (24-5).
"That's what really got us going," Panthers senior Jeremiah Fleming said.
In fact it took just four minutes to cut the Morton lead in half, Fleming's basket making the score 58-48. The third quarter ended with Morton leading by just 4 points.
"We fought," Flanigan added. "We fought hard. We made shots. We got into the press and made them turn the ball over."
A defensive switch was ice water to the Mustangs' red-hot shooters. Glenbard North went to a zone trap press and an extended 1-2-2 zone in the halfcourt to take Cannon and Carter out of their rhythm in the second half.
"That hurt us right there," Perez said.
"It helped. It worked," Larson said. "We needed to create some turnovers somehow. We needed to get back into the game down 20."
Carter made just 2 of 5 shots in the second half, Cannon 3 of 7, finishing with 20 points. Perez added 16 points.
The Mustangs held off the Panthers for several minutes, but Glenbard North finally tied the game at 77 on a Fleming basket with 3:15 left and took its first lead of the game with 1:39 left on a Flanigan free throw.
A pair of Fleming free throws gave the Panthers their biggest lead, 82-77 with 57.2 seconds to go, but Morton cut it to 1 point. A Glenbard North turnover with 13.7 seconds to go gave Morton one last chance to win it, but two shots in the lane came up empty, and Holbert scored on a breakaway at the buzzer.
"I've seen it before," Larson said. "I've seen comebacks before in the high school playoffs. It happens."
Fleming made six 3-pointers to lead the Panthers with 26 points. Flanigan added 22 points, Holbert had 18 and Justin Jackson scored 10.
The Panthers meet Benet at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the Hinsdale Central supersectional.
Follow Orrin on Twitter @orrin_schwarz