In their biggest test of the season thus far, the Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers answered the call to step up their game with the previously undefeated Elgin Wildcats in town.
The 4A school brought with them a 12-0 record, about 100 rowdy fans and plenty of swagger. However, Liberty Hill successfully put the first blemish on the Wildcats’ record, silenced their loud fans and gave the visiting players and coaches something to think about on the ride home after a 71-66 victory at the Panthers Den Monday.
“They were 12-0 coming into the game tonight, we were 13-1,” said Liberty Hill Coach Barry Boren. “We knew it was going to be a tough game. It was a good win over a quality team so we will definitely take it.”
Liberty Hill found itself down 19-18 after the first quarter as the teams got a feel for one another in both strategy and personnel. Senior Stephen Graves did not have the best of shooting nights, but put in five of his 18 points in the first quarter to lead the Panthers in the period.
In the second, junior point guard Shane LaCaille dropped nine of Liberty Hill’s 16 points in the quarter as the Panthers kept things close down 37-34 at the half. While Elgin was hitting most of its shots, Liberty Hill missed some opportunities. But with a solid zone-trap defense forcing turnovers and with LaCaille being aggressive and not turning the ball over, the Runnin’ Panthers felt good about where they sat with another half to play.
As a team, Liberty Hill hit eight of 10 free throws in the first half and made two three-pointers.
With multiple lead changes and momentum swings throughout the competition, it was anyone’s ball game to take in what mounted to be
a wild second half.
Those opportunities that Liberty Hill did not convert in the first half seemingly were seized in the second.
Junior Blake Danielak, who stands at 6 feet 7 inches, is not only big in height, but came up huge for Coach Boren and the Runnin’ Panthers. When down 37-36, Danielak hit one of Liberty Hill’s four three-point buckets on the night to give the Panthers a 39-37 lead. He added two more baskets and had multiple key rebounds to go along with three blocks in the third period.
“We were down three at the half, we made a couple of adjustments but nothing huge and then just played,” Boren said. “We hit free
throws down the stretch and Blake Danielak I thought came through big not just offensively, but defensively as well.”
Liberty Hill was also the beneficiary of two technical fouls called on Elgin’s Tracy Haywood and later Troy Nash for extracurricular actions both physically and verbally.
LaCaille made two of four of the technical free throws to close out the quarter and give the Panthers a 50-48 advantage with the final period to play.
The Wildcats stole the lead after a 5-0 run to go up 53-50 with just over seven minutes to play. However, a few minutes later Liberty Hill countered with a 10-0 run, earning the Runnin’ Panthers back the lead 64-55 with 2:18 on the clock.
Elgin stormed back in a hurry with another 5-0 run to close the gap 64-60. After double technical fouls were called on both teams, LaCaille sunk two free throws giving Liberty Hill a 66-60 lead with 53 seconds left to play.
Still, the Runnin’ Panthers could not rest as Haywood knocked down a three-pointer and got fouled for a four-point play. With Liberty Hill only up 67-66 with 26 seconds left, LaCaille and Danielak were clutch hitting all four of their free throws, the latter with only 6.6 left, icing the victory 71-66.
“At the end of the game when we put the ball in our guys’ hands we feel pretty confident about the fact that they will make (free throws),” Boren explained. “That is a strategy down the stretch that is pressure, but it’s a different kind of pressure. So, we make buckets and go back down and play defense.”
LaCaille led Liberty Hill in scoring with 23 while Danielak put in 19 and added five blocks on defense. Graves came on strong towards the end of the game, scoring seven of his 18 points in the fourth quarter to help push Liberty Hill over the top.
With one test behind them, two more lie immediately ahead with Lorena coming to town Monday, Dec. 19, before the Runnin’ Panthers travel to Waco to take on La Vega the next day.
Liberty Hill’s scheduled game this Friday, Dec. 16, against the Wimberley Texans was cancelled due to the school’s football team playing at Cowboys Stadium for the state finals.
“We’re not going to play Friday so we got a couple of days to get ready to go back-to-back on Monday and Tuesday against Lorena and La Vega,” Boren said. “Both those teams are playoff teams.”