By Jackson Russell
Wallan Panthers have one team heading to the Country Basketball League grand final in Wodonga on Saturday, with the men’s team keeping their perfect record in tact.
The women’s team lost in an upset in front of a standing room only crowd for the semi-finals at RB Robson Stadium on Saturday night.
The Panthers’ men overcame a slow start to roll Shepparton Gators 78-57.
Wallan trailed Shepparton 19-6 at the end of the first period. Shepparton were making big shots, opening the contest with an 8-0 run and leading by as many as 13.
Back-to-back threes from Leo Viitala tied the game at 21-21 with seven minutes left in the half as the Panthers hit their stride in the second quarter, outscoring the Gators 27-10.
Shepparton was able to pull the margin back to three points early in the third term, which also saw an unsportsmanlike foul called on the Gators.
Wallan weathered the storm and put its foot down, going on a 22-7 run to close the quarter including 10 straight points from Luke Liesegang and seven straight points from Max Viitala to lead 59-41 at the final break.
With the game all but decided, Wallan held on to its lead with a 19-16 fourth period which was good enough for the win.
Max Viitala led the Panthers with 22 points, while his brother Leo Viitala scored 17 points with 15 coming from three-point baskets. Luke Liesegang was important inside, scoring 18 points.
Wallan will face Seymour Blasters in the Country Basketball League North East grand final on Saturday at Wodonga at 8pm.
The Panthers’ women were unable to secure their place in the grand final, falling to Seymour Blasters 66-59.
Wallan started well, opening the game with a 15-11 first period, but Seymour was able to tie the game at 20-20 midway through the second quarter after some successful trips to the free throw line.
The Blasters stretched their lead out to 11 on the back of a 13-2 run before crucial buckets from Sarah Wakefield and Carly Cranston brought the margin back to five points at half-time.
Two consecutive baskets from the Panthers to open the third closed the gap to just one point but Seymour was able to chip away and extend its lead to nine points at three-quarter time.
Wallan trailed by 11 points with less than four minutes left in the fourth period but still hustled and fought for loose balls.
Big shots from Cranston and Wakefield closed the margin to four points inside the final minute but it wasn’t enough to keep Wallan’s season alive.
Cranston finished with 17 points including two three-pointers while Wakefield had 11 and Nicola Stewart had 10.
Wallan coach Ben Whyte said he was impressed with his team since the start of pre-season.
“It was disappointing to finish the way we did but I was so proud of the girls and the way they played for all 40 minutes,” he said.
“A few of the girls were upset with the result but I couldn’t be prouder, and it’s great to see after a two year hiatus from CBL that women’s basketball is still strong in Wallan.”
Whyte thanked the crowd that packed into RB Robson Stadium.
“That crowd was phenomenal. The Seymour coach said he knew it would be daunting for them and at one point, he called a timeout to shut the crowd up so they couldn’t have an influence on the game,” he said.
“It just shows everyone in the community gets on board both teams. It was fantastic to see a final with a packed crowd.”