GREENFIELD - You could see it in their faces as the game wore on.
The free-wheeling swagger that so typified the disposition of the Park High School boys basketball team during this unforgettable season slowly eroded. In its place were expressions of concern and, ultimately, somberness.
The Panthers finally met their match Saturday night, losing to Milwaukee Hamilton 88-66 in a WIAA Division 1 sectional championship at Greenfield. For the sixth time since they made their last state tournament appearance in 1960, the Panthers advanced this far, only to fall just short.
And while Park (15-11) forfeited 10 victories in late February because of truancies, this was the first time this season it actually came up on the short end on the scoreboard.
"What a great run we had," Park coach Jim Betker said. "Hamilton was the better team tonight. Our kids are a bunch of class-act kids, I've been super proud of my coaching staff and the people who supported us know what Park basketball is all about."
After putting on a spectacular run-and-gun show most of this season, the Panthers had no answers for an all-junior Hamilton starting lineup that featured the forward tandem of 6-foot-8 Darnell Harris and 6-6 Elgin Cook and sure-handed point guard Chuck Lee. There was also the experience of coach Tom Diener, who led Milwaukee Vincent to five state championships in six seasons from 1996-2001.
"They were the most talented team we've seen," senior guard Finest Marshall said. "Offensively, they're great and they have two big guys who can take them all the way."
And when this game got under way before a standing room-only crowd of more than 2,000 in Greenfield's gymnasium, it all came together in spectacular fashion for the Wildcats. Playing what Diener considered "textbook" man-to-man defense on Park and coming after the Panthers with both a fast break and a patient approach, Hamilton jumped out to an 11-2 lead and was never seriously challenged.
Seemingly everything Hamilton put up went in, whether it was mid-range jumpers by Harris and Lee or inside shots by Cook. The Wildcats led 17-8 during the final seconds of the first quarter before Park's Issaih Bridges lost control of the ball and then swished a desperation 3-pointer well beyond the arc.
"We didn't do anything different tonight, we just did it a little bit better," Diener said. "We play man-to-man defense, we work very hard on it and as the season progressed, we've gotten better. In that first quarter, our man-to-man defense was textbook and really laid the foundation for the rest of the game."
There was very little drama the rest of the game. Park opened the second half with a 5-0 run to pull to within 43-30, but after Diener called a timeout and heatedly challenged his players, the Wildcats responded with a 12-0 run to take a commanding 55-31 lead with 2:06 left in the third quarter.
With Hamilton controlling the boards 35-30 - Harris led the way with 13 - there was little Park could do to get back in the game.
"I thought going in we could control the boards," Diener said. "We've been a little bit inconsistent on the boards all year and we really emphasized going into this game that we needed to get on the glass. Darnell and Elgin did a fantastic job tonight."
Diener felt the same way about Park.
"Their guard play is outstanding," Diener said. "I mean, Tre Edwards and Josh Cameron and Issaih Bridges, those three guys are really dangerous. They can shoot the ‘3' and they can penetrate. That's pretty tough to defend.
"They're a very good team. I think they ran into a little bit of a buzzsaw tonight. We played one of our better games, especially in the first half."