D.J. Stennis probably should have felt pressure Monday.
The Palo Verde senior guard had a rough first half in his team’s Class 4A play-in game against Liberty at Arbor View, and his Panthers led by only three points going into the fourth quarter.
Instead of nervously awaiting the start of the quarter with his teammates, Stennis took time to go ask the public address announcer about his day.
“I just try to loosen everybody up,” said Stennis, who hit a pair of game-clinching free throws with 10.8 seconds to play, lifting Palo Verde to a 68-63 win and a berth in the state semifinals. The Panthers (23-5) will face Eldorado at 4:40 p.m. on Thursday at Orleans Arena.
“I probably should have felt some pressure, but I really didn’t,” said Stennis, who went to the free-throw line with his team leading 66-63. He was just 1 of 6 from the stripe before sinking the two shots.
“I had too much adrenaline or something earlier,” he said. “I try to keep my team poised.”
Stennis scored only one point in the first half of the boys game as the Panthers struggled.
Palo Verde made just 11 of 34 shots in the first half and trailed 30-27.
“We were really rushing at the beginning of the game,” said Palo Verde coach Jermone Riley. “We played too much one on one. We made adjustments in the second half.”
That included Stennis, who scored 10 third-quarter points as Palo Verde took a 48-45 lead.
“He was huge,” Riley said. “We needed him to push, but also be under control. We did a great job of rotating.”
Palo Verde extended the lead to 54-49 on Moses Morgan’s tomahawk dunk with 5:58 left.
But Liberty (18-9) came right back with four straight points, including a tomahawk dunk by Kenneth Peters with 5:05 left to pull within 54-53. The Patriots took the lead on Ashante Ross’ transition layup wih 4:15 left.
A 10-3 run by the Panthers gave Palo a 54-58 lead before Peters’ 3-pointer with 23 seconds left brought Liberty to within 65-63.
A free throw by Bronston Abad upped the lead to 66-63 before a Liberty turnover and foul sent Stennis to the line.
“We knew this would be a battle,” Riley said. “We knew it would be an up-and-down game.”
Moses Morgan had 16 points, Stennis 13 and Drew Topham 12 for Palo Verde.
Kenneth Peters had 20 points, and Milos Knezevic 17 points and 11 rebounds to lead Liberty. Cameron Peters added 14 points and Ross 10 for the Patriots.