By Joseph Garcia
A good coach always demands perfection from his or her team and especially if the coach is Liberty Hill’s Barry Boren.
Following a dominating performance in the Coach Smith Tournament in Salado last weekend, in which the Runnin’ Panthers took the title, Liberty Hill hosted the 4A Hutto Hippos in a game that was less-than perfect for Coach Boren.
In a game that was tight throughout, Hutto took Liberty Hill down to the wire and came within a point at 46-45 with 5:55 left in the game. However, stifling defense and clutch free throws from seniors Shane LaCaille and Blake Danielak with another from sophomore Callen Mikulencak were the difference late to push Liberty Hill over the top for a 53-47 victory at home.
The win improved the Runnin’ Panthers’ record to 15-1 overall.
Coach Boren was appreciative for the win, but less-than pleased with his team’s overall performance at home.
“We won, but in my opinion it was sort of a lackluster game,” said Boren. “We haven’t played a good home game yet. We’ve played well at times, but tonight wasn’t one of them. I am still waiting for our kids to put together a good game on our home court.”
Tuesday night’s contest began with LaCaille draining a 3-pointer for three of his 10 first-quarter points. Hutto came back to tie the game twice in the first period at 5 and again at 12.
The Hippos then took their first and only lead of the game at 17-15. Two LaCaille foul shots tied it back up at 17 before senior Jadon Durity-Boatright hit one of two, giving the Panthers an 18-17 lead to end the quarter.
Liberty Hill managed to separate by four points (31-27) heading into halftime after LaCaille sunk three 3-pointers in the second quarter, including back-to-back buckets from long range. Tyler Eyre and Durity-Boatright each added a basket, with the latter swatting away a Hutto 3-point attempt at the halftime buzzer.
It was a shaky start to the second half for the Hippos as Tristan Heidelberg stole the inbounds pass and dished it off to Danielak who kissed the sky with a two-handed dunk that rocked the Panthers Den and gave his team momentum.
The two sides, however, traded baskets for a while before the Panthers allowed Hutto to sneak back in due to non-forced turnovers. At the end of three quarters Liberty Hill clung to a 44-39 lead.
Ahead by just a point at 46-45, Durity-Boatright drove past the Hutto defense for a layup that gave Liberty Hill a 48-45 lead. The Hippos would only score one more basket and Liberty Hill forced them to foul.
But LaCaille and Danielak did not miss their clutch free throws and the Panthers were able to ice the game for a 53-47 victory.
LaCaille finished with a game-high 23 points on 5 of 9 shooting from 3-point range and dished out 6 assists. Danielak recorded a double-double with 11 points and 12 rebounds and Durity-Boatright added 10 points, four rebounds and two assists.
After the game, Coach Boren could finally breathe a sigh of relief, but was and is not satisfied with everything he saw.
“To our kids’ credit, (Hutto) came close a couple of times and we hit big shots to pull back ahead,” he said. “But it just wasn’t a clean game. We’ve got some things that have got to get fixed. Now I am saying that and we are 15-1 and I promise you a lot of teams would like to have these problems.”
As for the Coach Smith Tournament in Salado, the Runnin’ Panthers ran through its four opponents, winning by an average of 30 points for the tournament.
“We did exactly what we expected to do,” Boren said. “We’ve been playing in tournaments with 4A people (in Marble Falls) and then we got a chance to play some 3A people (in Salado) and it was quite nice. We did what we expected to do and were not surprised by it at all. We would have been disappointed if anything else had happened.”
In wins over Academy, Waco Connally, old district foe Taylor and Georgetown East View, Liberty Hill received contributions and big games from not only the usual suspects in LaCaille and Danielak, who won the tournament MVP, but from others.
Seniors Josh White and Durity-Boatright each led the team in scoring once in the tournament. White hung 15 on Connally to top the Panthers’ scorers in a 54-36 win, while Durity-Boatright led Liberty Hill with 18 in the championship game against East View, which the Panthers won 86-35.
“In the Salado tournament, Josh White really did a great job a couple of games in there and Jadon (Durity-Boatright) had a really good game in there too,” praised Boren. “It’s a double-edged sword and is kind of what you get when we are where we are (a good 3A team). Even if you win and you don’t win convincingly, you feel sort of unsatisfied. We are very grateful that we won.”
The Runnin’ Panthers have one more home date before the winter break — Friday, Dec. 14, against Fredericksburg for a 7:45 p.m. tipoff.
After that, Liberty Hill will travel to Fredericksburg Dec. 27-28 for the last tournament the Panthers will play this season until the playoffs begin.
For now, Coach Boren wants his team to concentrate on putting together four excellent quarters at home.
“I am certainly grateful that we are 15-1, but I want us to have a good game at home so our home people can see us play better,” he said. “We’ll see. We have Fredericksburg coming in here on Friday night.”