By Joseph Garcia
CORPUS CHRISTI – Once the Runnin’ Panthers reached the Region IV-3A Final; the opponent waiting for them was seemingly one of destiny.
Just the night before, Corpus Christi Miller backup guard Jesse Franco made a layup at the buzzer over San Antonio Sam Houston for a 72-71 win, advancing the Bucs to the regional final against Liberty Hill.
On Saturday, Franco provided the game-winning points yet again helping Miller (31-8) to another upset victory to reach the Class 3A boys state basketball tournament in Austin.
Franco sank two free throws in the final minute of overtime to give Miller a 61-57 lead. Two points from junior Blake Danielak in the waning seconds were not enough as Liberty Hill (34-4) was stunned 61-59 in overtime, ending a phenomenal season.
“Saturday we ran into a good Miller team who was obviously on a mission,” said Liberty Hill Coach Barry Boren. “They were playing in their own neighborhood for the right to go to Austin. It was their last chance to do so as a 3A team as they will be returning to 4A next year,” he said. “They defeated the No. 3 ranked team SA Sam Houston at the buzzer on Friday night and emerged from a 10-point deficit late in the 3rd quarter (1.9 seconds to be exact) to beat us in OT.
“We had beaten the defending state champs West Oso who had also won Miller’s district and had swept them in two games. Miller seemed to be the team of destiny,” Boren said.
The victory put the 13th-ranked Bucs into the state tournament for the first time since 1950 when – then known as Corpus Christi High – won the Class 2A championship.
This is Miller’s final season competing in 3A as the school moves to 4A next year.
While Liberty Hill controlled most of the game, including building a 10-point lead, the first sign that it was Miller’s year was when guard Billy Guzman sunk a near half-court shot at the third quarter buzzer to cut the Panthers’ lead to 47-40.
The basket gave Miller much-needed life heading into the fourth quarter.
Coach Boren said sometimes in basketball you just can’t account for certain things that may happen in a game.
“These are things that you don’t count on,” he explained. “Sometimes desperate teams do desperate things at desperate times and it works out because they are desperate and have nothing to lose.”
Liberty Hill scored on six free throws between Shane LaCaille and Stephen Graves as Coach Boren switched to a four-corner offense to chew up the clock.
The time-consuming strategy worked the entire season to seal victories, but with Miller seemingly getting the bulk of calls in the second half, LaCaille and others were not afforded the opportunity to make free throws they normally do down the stretch.
“Some seem to question my conservative approach to the fourth quarter with only a seven-point lead,” Boren said. “My intention was to hunker down and play good half-court defense and put the ball into our free throw shooters’ hands down the stretch. We tried to do that, but it did not seem that the officials were willing to call the game as we usually play it.”
Miller got to the line 11 more times then Liberty Hill (14-26, 13-15).
“We normally can ice a game away with a lead when we start getting to the line,” Boren said. “We are really good in that area (13-15 on Saturday). As stated, there was plenty of physical play with no calls. What seems baffling is that Miller shot 26 free throws and at the end were the ones doing the pressing. Anyway, it is always part of the game.”
Miller cut the lead to 53-49 after a Dale Perryman layup with 1:14 left. Then following an out-of-bounds violation by Liberty Hill, Guzman nailed his fifth three-pointer from NBA range to make it 53-52.
Even with a four-point lead with 1:14 to go in regulation, Coach Boren felt pretty good.
“We have played this way and won many, many times,” he said. “And, we will again. What I didn’t count for was #10 (Guzman) shooting about a 35-foot bomb to cut it to 1. Couple this with his near half-court one at the 1.9 mark at the end of the 3rd quarter.”
After a Graves free throw, Perryman took the inbounds pass and drove the length of the floor for the tying layup with 11.5 seconds left, bringing Miller to its first tie since 0-0.
The Battlin’ Bucs never led for the entire game until the first minute of overtime at 55-54.
Miller then controlled the extra period with four pivotal free throws from Marquis Lewis and Franco during the final minute of overtime, stamping the Bucs ticket to Austin.
Lewis, who finished with a team-high 18 points, scored five of Miller’s seven points in OT.
Danielak’s 18 points led the Panthers with LaCaille adding 16 and Graves with 14.
“I feel horrible for our team especially our seniors,” Boren said once the season ended. “This group has been wonderful.”