By Joseph Garcia
With holiday season afoot, the Liberty Hill Lady Panthers happily spread cheer to parents, fans and their coach after winning four games in a row to claim the Coach Smith Tournament title at Salado High School Dec. 6-8.
The Lady Panthers varsity team has been competitive in most all of their games this season, especially recently, but a 3-11 record heading into the Coach Smith Tournament did not reflect as much. Coach Matt Kirschner and his team finally figured out a way to put it all together and get over the hump to start winning close games.
Liberty Hill improved its record to 7-11 overall.
In the championship game against host Salado is when it showed the most.
Leading 26-16 in the third quarter, Liberty Hill staved off a comeback attempt from the Lady Eagles to win 36-29, becoming tournament champs.
Coach Kirschner is proud to see his team come together and play quality basketball.
“It was great to see us playing at such a high level,” said Kirschner. “We are slowly starting to understand what it takes to be successful. It was a big boost to our confidence. We are starting to see how good we can be.”
To get to the championship round, the Lady Panthers defeated the best teams in the pool, including 4A Georgetown East View and always tough Lorena.
Liberty Hill’s opening round opponent was 1A McGregor, a school the Lady Panther handled fairly easy.
The Lady Panthers started the game on a 9-0 run, but the McGregor Lady Bulldogs shot their way back in the game with a few 3-pointers to make the score 18-14 after one quarter.
Liberty Hill kept McGregor at bay with sharp execution and taking care of the ball. Six different Lady Panthers scored in the second quarter. And with Liberty Hill up by just five, Baylie Beavers grabbed a rebound and put the ball back up for two, giving the Lady Panthers a 27-20 lead.
A Shelby Whitten three gave Liberty Hill a 32-25. The Lady Panthers maintained the seven-point margin going into halftime at 34-27.
Good ball movement and a larcenous defense led to fast breaks points for Liberty Hill as the Lady Panthers pulled away in the second half. Led by 10 points from sophomore Ashlee Walker, Liberty Hill won the first-round game by 16 at 56-40.
Liberty Hill’s next game took place Friday morning (Dec. 8) against Lorena in what was a low-scoring affair.
Regardless of being outscored 20-15 in the second half, the Lady Panthers had built a 10-point halftime lead (19-9) that gave them just enough cushion to hang on for a 34-29 victory.
Liberty Hill’s lead was narrowed down to two points, 29-27, with 46.9 seconds left to play in the game. But the Lady Panthers gathered themselves and went to their go-to play on the inside in Maddie Metzger. Metzger received the pass and scored on a layup while getting fouled.
Metzger, who finished the game with 11 points and six rebounds, finished the three-point play to give Liberty Hill a five-point lead (32-27) with 37.5 left.
The win was sealed with a free throw a piece from Metzger and Erin Fitzgerald to put the final touches on the 34-29 win.
The Lady Panthers’ second game on Friday pitted them against 4A East View in what may normally be thought of as a tall order for 3A Liberty Hill. Instead the Lady Panthers played one of their best games of the season and took it to East View for an impressive 47-33 win that propelled them into the championship game.
After their early struggles, the Lady Panthers are seemingly coming into their own.
“The girls played hard and are starting to understand the system and how it has to be played,” Kirschner said. “We are also learning to play within our own abilities.”
Keys to Liberty Hill’s win included big runs in fist and third quarters.
As if shot out of a cannon, Liberty Hill’s 14-2 run over nearly five minutes pushed the lead to 19-7 after the first period. The Lady Panthers also outscored the East View 10-2 over the final 5:11 of the third quarter to take a 38-24 lead into the final period.
After trading baskets in the fourth, Liberty Hill maintained its lead as each team scored nine a piece to make the final score 47-33.
Filled to the brim with confidence, Liberty Hill played a tough, smart game against host Salado to earn the title.
Maddie Metzger, who averaged over nine points (9.25) a game, was named the Tournament MVP for her clutch play throughout all four wins.
Coach Kirschner is glad to have Metzger on his team.
“Maddie (Metzger) played well throughout the tournament,” he said. “She made plays when we needed them. Some of her best plays were when she was hustling down loose balls and being strong on the boards.”
Aside from Metzger, other Lady Panthers honored included Shelby Whitten, Cera Dixon and Ashlee Walker, who were named to the All-Tournament Team.
Coach Kirschner said the biggest reason for his team’s upward trend is due to finally finding the right mix of players to send out on the court, coupled with the girls simply making plays.
“I think the biggest catalyst is that I have found a good rotation and everyone is starting to understand their role on the team,” Kirschner said. “Also, we have had several players step up and make the plays when needed.”
Next for the Lady Panthers is a trip to Georgetown to take on the Lady Eagles on Friday, Dec. 14, for a 7:30 p.m. tipoff.