By Joseph Garcia
SALADO — Playing in only their second district game of the season, the Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers concentrated on their defensive efforts Tuesday. The home team Eagles quickly found out that Liberty Hill is more that just an offensive machine.
After watching the Lady Panthers take out the Lady Eagles in a close one, the boys were prepared for whatever came their way. They set the tone early in the game with their rejuvenated defensive efforts allowing only two points to be scored in the first quarter. After the final buzzer sounded, Liberty Hill (2-0, 22-3) emerged with a 73-44 victory.
“I was really proud of them because they played really well defensively,” said Coach Barry Boren. “We had some adjustments that we tried to make after the first time we played them. I always say Salado is the best-coached team we play in our district. He does a great job and so this is a good win for us. We really feel good about it.”
Once the Liberty Hill defense was established; the offense emerged led by the big man with a shooting touch – Blake Danielak.
The junior got things started after draining his first three-point basket after fellow junior Shane LaCaille found him wide open. LaCaille continued to find open teammates throughout the game, including a full-court pass on the money to senior Stephen Graves for a layup to start the game.
LaCaille and Graves led the Panthers in the first quarter with four points each as the period ended with Liberty Hill on top 15-2, but Danielak was just getting started.
In the second, Danielak scored seven more points including another from three-point land. Senior Blake Hare also added a trey and the defense continued to impress, allowing only eight points in the quarter. Liberty Hill took a 29-10 lead into the locker room with much room to improve offensively.
Coach Boren said seeing the Lady Panthers game before helped his team to mentally prepare for what the first half may bring.
“I think seeing the girls and our JV teams struggle a little bit early on helped them get their focus,” he said. “We didn’t play real well offensively early and I know how our kids are put together, they were stressing about that. But they played so well defensively that I was pleased with them.”
The Runnin’ Panther offense began to pick up in the second half, led by LaCaille and Danielak. The juniors each scored eight points in the third quarter. Danielak hit two more threes in the period, while LaCaille did his best Reggie Miller impression by scoring five points in about 10 seconds.
“I told them at the half to not get over anxious and I thought they played better in the second half offensively,” Boren said.
Tyeler Greenstreet added four points and Graves nailed a three as part of the best offensive quarter for the Panthers, increasing their lead to 52-29 with one quarter left.
In the final period, Danielak hit two more three pointers brining his total to six of eight made from behind the arc. LaCaille continued to be aggressive as well scoring seven in the fourth quarter including a sweet step-back jumper over Salado defenders.
Danielak led the Panthers with 24 points while LaCaille dropped 19 of his own in addition to numerous assists. Graves finished with 11 and Greenstreet with eight.
After the game, Coach Boren talked about the improvement of Danielak’s game. He said he saw the junior at school and jokingly told him to “take that smile off your face.”
That is when the teacher became the student if only for a second.
“He said I am just having fun, coach, and I had to kind of backtrack because it is a game and they are supposed to have fun,” Boren explained. “The one thing I had to go back and make sure he understood was that I have a lot of confidence in him. As he’s gotten better my expectations of him have risen. I think he is a really good player, but I want him to be a great player. He’s the kind of kid who just keeps getting better. He’s shown us that and will continue to do so.”
Liberty Hill will look to go 3-0 when they take on the visiting Llano Yellow Jackets Friday, Jan. 20, starting at 8 p.m. at the Panthers Den.