By Joseph Garcia
AUSTIN – It may have been déjà vu for the Lady Panthers of Liberty Hill after Abilene Wylie ended their season for the second time in three years Thursday at the Frank Erwin Center.
Just 17 hours earlier, the University of Texas men defeated Oklahoma to keep its NCAA tournament dreams alive. The Liberty Hill Lady Panthers, in front of 6,592 fans, would try to keep their dream alive as well on the same court.
Liberty Hill, Central Texas’ last hope of winning the girls state basketball championship in 2012, had its 22-game winning streak snapped after the Lady Bulldogs of Wylie outlasted the Lady Panthers for a 65-52 win.
“We were so close, and it’s just sad to see it come to an end,” said Liberty Hill senior Taylor Russell, who made the all-tournament team, scoring 17 points and nabbing 14 rebounds. “I feel like if we played this game again, it would be the same because we gave everything that we absolutely had. They were just a great team, and we couldn’t finish.”
Reigning champs Abilene Wylie never trailed, jumping out to a 10-point lead (15-5) after five Lady Bulldogs combined for three three-pointers and two three-point plays.
Peyton Little, a Texas A&M signee, and Kylie Jenkins each scored five points to lead Wylie in the first half.
Little missed her first six shots on Thursday, with five of those misses coming in the first quarter. But her team picked up the slack.
“We’ve always talked about how if a team tries to stop Peyton, we have to step up and do what we need to do,” said Wylie junior guard Hailey Brown. “That point came, and we just took care of business.”
Once the second quarter began, Liberty Hill settled down and started to play its game of press defense and fast breaks, forcing seven turnovers.
The Lady Panthers were afforded ample opportunities to pull closer and even take the lead, but Liberty Hill shot just 25 percent from the field to Wylie’s 39.1.
“I feel like we missed a couple of opportunities, but it’s not like we were just shooting and missing. (Our shots) were contested,” said Liberty Hill senior guard Kourtney Bevers. “They played a good defensive game, and we just couldn’t capitalize off their mistakes.”
Outshooting Liberty Hill, Wylie led 27-19 at halftime and 39-30 by the end of the third quarter.
Liberty Hill rallied to pull within 49-43 on senior Jordan Redmond’s free throw with 3:18 to go.
However, Wylie countered with a three-pointer by McPherson before the team sunk 11 free throws as the clock dwindled down.
“Defensively, we did what we had to do,” said Liberty Hill Coach Matt Kirschner. “Offensively, we just couldn’t get shots to fall. In a game like this, that’s what it’s going to come down to. You’ve got to make some shots.”
Liberty Hill (35-5) could not find its rhythm offensively throughout the game and were unable to reach its 67.3 points-per-game average. The Lady Panthers made just 19 of their 60 field-goal attempts and went 2-of-13 from behind the arc.
Little, who went 2-of-13 from the field, made 19 of 22 free throws for 25 points while dishing out eight assists.
Bevers added 13 points for Liberty Hill while Redmond had 12 points and four blocks.
After the season-ending loss, Coach Kirschner talked about how special the ride has been with this group of girls.
“I am glad to have the opportunity to bring them (to the state tournament) once,” Kirschner said. “I am going to miss them dearly and this spring is going to be rough…I’ve been blessed to coach them for the past three years. I want to tell them thank you.”