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Panthers need to keep their edge

Like watching a slow motion car wreck, Tuesday’s first round Horizon League Tournament match-up between the Milwaukee Panthers and Detroit Titans looked like it was headed for an unfortunate conclusion for the home team.

It didn’t happen – Milwaukee’s colossal 21-point lead of the late first half held up – and Milwaukee gets to live Gus Johnson’s credo for at least one more game.

On the docket is Valparaiso, a team that has beaten Milwaukee twice cleanly this season. If Milwaukee is going to get over the hump, they’re going to have to do it the way they had done during their 9-2 start, or the winning streak in the middle of the conference season. In short, they need to keep their composure while they flirt with disaster.

Valparaiso isn’t going to wow you with high-flying dunks. They’re going to play mistake-free basketball and they’re going to shoot the lights out. Sure, Lavonte Dority is going to make some slashes to the basket, but the fact of the matter is that he is going to get his. At some point, Alec Peters is going to hit a big three. Bobby Capobianco will fist-pump his way to a big put back bucket.

Those don’t matter. What matters is how Milwaukee responds.

This season, more than perhaps any other in recent memory, is the tale of Two Milwaukees. There is the championship caliber Milwaukee that rode the wave of passion, effort and treys to a 9-2 start and huge victories over Green Bay, Wright State and Oakland. But there’s also the Milwaukee that shows up when the game gets in their heads. No matter the score, the Panthers can suffer from a case of the here-we-go-agains and let a five-point deficit become a 20-point deficit or turn a 20-point lead into a nail biter.

Who knows where that team came from. It seems to be the evolution of the old free throw problems, where Kaylon Williams or someone would miss a free throw and the Arena crowd would hang their heads and accept defeat with tons of time left on the clock. Now that the team is at least decent from the charity stripe, the fans get on tenterhooks – and the players seem to sense it – when things only begin to tip in the wrong direction. It has happened early in games, it has happened late in games.

There’s no rhyme or reason as to when the Panthers face adversity in the form of a run from their opponent. They just do. Their success, tonight and throughout the rest of the Horizon League Tournament, depends on what their reaction is when adversity rears its ugly head.

Matt Tiby needs to pump up the passion. When coach Jeter alludes to Tiby toning it down, he’s probably using the wrong terms. Early in the season when Tiby would get pumped up, he’d commit the same lane charge every time – in short, he stopped thinking and just attacked. But that doesn’t mean he needs to tone it down. That means he needs to channel that rage, because a kickout three-pointer is just as satisfying as throwing down a rim-rattling jam – and it counts for 150% of the points too. What’s more important than channeling the rage, though, is maintaining the excitement when the chips are down. If the Crusaders go on a run, Tiby needs to be there yelling and rallying the troops. Same goes for if the Panthers find themselves up by a bunch. Sweep the leg, Tiby.

What’s going to beat Valpo strategically is going right at their bigs on the offensive end. That means a heavy dosage of Kyle Kelm, Tiby and JJ Panoske down low, as opposed to any of those guys outside. All three of them can hit threes – we know it – but there’s a reason teams are willing to give up the three to them, it’s because they won’t make them pay on a high enough percentage to merit abandoning the post to guard them. When one of them does hit a three, it is the exception, not the norm. Kelm is experienced. He is cagey, and he’s smart. That’s why he has consistently passed up on the three-pointer unless there is no defense to speak of.

As for Panoske, the sophomore has all the potential in the world to both excite and frustrate. If he can take the extra dribble down low and put up that hook, it’s going to fall more often than if it comes right after he takes the pass. On the defensive end, he has to box out and pull down rebounds with both hands – and he’s got to be the first big down on the defensive end every single play.

But all this could be for naught if Steve McWhorter can’t keep the Panthers playing mistake-free ball. That includes Mr. McWhorter himself, prone to the dumb foul that could put him on the bench when the Panthers are thin enough at guard as it is. Thank all that is holy for JR Lyle’s emergence.

At the end of the day, the game is won or lost on one square foot of real estate on the top of the shoulders. The Panthers need to keep their heads in the game and angry when Valpo makes its runs.

They took care of one demon by trashing Detroit in the Cell. If the Panthers can play mistake-free ball and keep their edge, they can continue this Revenge World Tour by getting the right victory out of three games against Valpo. If they can’t, we’ll all be watching Valpo try and topple the champs on Saturday. I for one can’t trust anyone else with that task.

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