MARBLE FALLS — A few questions were answered last weekend about the 2011-12 Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers basketball team – and they were all positive.
How would they respond from their first loss of the season (72-65 vs. Rouse last Tuesday)?
By winning five straight games in a span of three days.
How would they perform in a tournament setting?
By returning to Liberty Hill champions of the 2011 Marble Falls McDonald’s Classic Dec. 1-3 and improving its season record to 8-1 before defeating the Westwood Warriors Dec. 6 by a score of 97-47.
In the championship game, Liberty Hill edged out a tough Waco University team 67-63.
“This was a good win for us,” said Liberty Hill Coach Barry Boren. “Waco University is a very good ball club and we knew they would be in it towards the end. That was a heck of a ball game.”
And how would the Runnin’ Panthers deal with a physical championship game in which there were controversial calls from the referees?
Well, literally like champs.
After taking out Kerrville Tivy 45-38 in last Thursday’s first-round matchup, Liberty Hill scored its highest point total in an 80-64 win over Killeen later that afternoon. Junior guard Shane LaCaille topped the Panthers’ scoring with 24 in the first game with senior Steven Graves leading the offense with 28 in the second.
On Dec. 2, Liberty Hill scored 28 points in the first quarter against Vandergrift to outlast the Vipers 63-44. Graves led all scorers with 21 points.
In their second game of the day, the Panthers beat the Travis Rebels 73-59 and Graves once against was the scoring leader with 24. LaCaille and senior Blake Hare each added 12 points. With the win, Liberty Hill moved on to the championship game to face Waco University High School on Dec. 3 at Marble Falls High School’s Max Copeland Gym.
Liberty Hill (9-1) was pitted against another one-loss team in Waco University, with a lengthy, athletic starting lineup that features an average height of 6-2.
The Runnin’ Panthers had to adjust to the length and height of the Trojans, and weathered a handful of turnovers in the first quarter. But eight points a piece by LaCaille and junior Blake Danielak, kept it close as the period ended with Liberty Hill down 20-18.
In the second quarter, Danielak tied the game 29-29 after sinking his fifth bucket of the game. The Trojans battled back to even the score 31-31, but a three-pointer by Graves broke the tie to give the Panthers a 34-31 lead with two minutes left to play in the half.
The Panthers then went on a 9-1 run to close out the half. Liberty Hill made eight of 10 shots from the charity stripe in the second quarter as the Panthers outscored the Trojans 25-13 in the period.
University cut the Liberty Hill lead to 55-47 heading into the final period with the Trojans’ junior guard Ray Washington scoring eight of his 20 points on the night in the third quarter.
The Trojans went on a 6-0 run to trim the Panthers’ lead to a slim 55-53 with 6:34 remaining in the game after senior forward Adonis Haven scored two of his 17 points on the night. A bucket by Washington then tied the game 57-57 with 5:16 on the clock.
While the first three quarters were fairly tame, the officials seemingly had their hands full trying to maintain control of the fourth. Throughout the game on several instances, fans from both sides as well as the coaches disagreed with some of the calls the referees were making.
Whether they were missed calls, non-calls or questionable judgments by the officiating crew, their decision to blow or not blow the whistle affected the game and seemed to allow University back in the contest.
Things got dicey for the Panthers as the Trojans took a 61-59 lead with just over two minutes remaining. But unfortunately for University, Washington – who played an outstanding game – drew a delay of game technical foul during a timeout after throwing the ball away from the officials.
The poor decision changed the momentum in Liberty Hill’s favor and put an 80 percent-plus free throw shooter in LaCaille on the line, who tied the game 61-61 with 2:00 left to play.
LaCaille continued to be aggressive, drawing a foul on the Panthers’ next possession. He swished the first free throw and the second rolled off the rim and in to give the Panthers a 63-61 lead.
With the Trojans looking to tie the game, senior Cory McKinzey took one for the team as he stepped in front of a driving Calvin Richardson, drawing a charging foul and giving the Panthers the ball back with 1:06 on the clock.
“I was proud of the way all the guys stepped up,” Boren said. “Corey (McKinzey) took a couple of charges that really made the difference down the stretch.”
Following a couple of LaCaille free throws, University pulled the score to 65-63 with only 38 seconds after a Haven basket. The Trojans got the ball back and were looking for the tie or the win, but yet again it was McKinzey who moved his feet into position to take a crucial charge. And again it was on Richardson who picked up the foul with only 3.6 seconds remaining.
LaCaille, who scored all of Liberty Hill’s points in the fourth quarter (12), sealed the win with two free throws making the final score 67-63.
Graves and LaCaille were selected to the all-tournament team and averaged 18.4 and 17.4 points, respectfully, for the duration of the competition.
“Shane and Steven have been playing varsity ball the longest so we really depend on their experience,” Boren explained. “We knew it was going to be a fourth quarter game and they played exceptional.”