By Joseph Garcia
After a disappointing tournament loss to Fredericksburg in the championship game a week before, the Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers were pitted against the No. 19 ranked Waco La Vega Pirates Jan. 4 and were in jeopardy of losing back-to-back games for the first time in recent history.
A comeback victory seemed to be in doubt when the Panthers were down by 15 (50-35) early in the third quarter. La Vega continued its hot shooting, while Liberty Hill turned the ball over and continued to fall behind.
Down 13 (63-50) heading into the fourth quarter, the Panthers did not have momentum, but they still had a shot.
However, in a whirlwind the Runnin’ Panthers outscored the Pirates 27-11 in the final frame with senior point guard Shane LaCaille sinking all four of his free throws, two with 11.11 left on the clock, putting the finishing touches on a tremendous 80-77 come-from-behind victory at home to improve to 21-2 on the season.
Liberty Hill Coach Barry Boren was proud his team’s sublime comeback effort.
“We didn’t play well early, we played well late,” said Boren. “We had several opportunities in which we could have lost the game, but we didn’t do that. That says something about our guys and this was a good win. This was as good of a win as we’ve had this year.”
LaCaille scored 11 of his 24 points in the fourth quarter, but it was senior forward Blake Danielak who kept Liberty Hill within striking distance, tabbing 31 points in the win.
Danielak said his team was ready for the challenge of La Vega.
“I think the whole team had a sour taste in their mouths after the loss last week,” said Danielak after the game. “We had a good week of practice and were ready for this game. We knew it was going to be tough, but we came together as a team and didn’t give up. I was proud of the way everyone played and stayed tough until the final buzzer.”
Liberty Hill needed every second to mount its comeback and crescendoed with each passing quarter.
La Vega was the aggressor out of the gates and stormed out to a 7-0 lead and took a 16-3 advantage before 3-pointers from Danielak and LaCaille fueled an 11-3 run to close out the first quarter. After one, La Vega led 23-16.
The Runnin’ Panthers picked things up in the second quarter and tied the game 23-23 on a Danielak three with 5:45 on the clock. Liberty Hill even took a brief lead at 27-25, but the Pirates began to catch fire from 3-point land headed by Austen Bradshaw, who finished with a game-high 35 points.
Bradshaw led the Pirates on a 14-5 run that helped swell the La Vega lead to 43-32 at the half.
To open the third quarter, La Vega took its largest lead of the game at 50-35. That’s when Liberty Hill needed its big-game players to step up, and they did.
Instead of entering the fourth quarter down by 20 points or more, Danielak nailed back-to-back 3-pointers as part of his 12-point third quarter, which kept Liberty Hill in the game. Countering shooting with shooting, the Runnin’ Panthers still had a chance down 66-53 with one quarter to play.
Coach Boren never panicked.
“I really never think too much about (the score),” Boren said. “They were playing and I was trying to coach. I wasn’t looking at the scoreboard, but I told them at some point instead of matching baskets we are going to have to start making some stops.”
In the fourth quarter Liberty Hill finally forced some of those stops and one player responsible for a few was senior guard Jadon Durity-Boatright. Durity-Boatright had not had much of an impact until the fourth quarter, but in the period he was the catalyst that swung the momentum pendulum in the Panthers’ favor.
The defensive specialist used his quickness and tenacity to come up with a barrage of steals that led to seven fourth-quarter points and easy baskets for his teammates. His first basket of the game cut the La Vega lead to 66-57.
“Jadon (Durity-Boatright) had a tremendous fourth quarter,” Boren said. “(He) had a flurry in there where he kind of turned the momentum around.”
Liberty Hill pulled within two possessions at 67-61 with 6:49 left after LaCaille hit two from the charity stripe. Minutes later, Durity-Boatright came up with another steal and dished an assist to a streaking Jessie Cousins that trimmed the La Vega advantage to two at 72-20.
Following a defensive stop, LaCaille did not hesitate to take the big shot and splashed in a 3-pointer, giving Liberty Hill a 73-72 lead with 2:25 left in the game.
La Vega answered back, taking the lead at 75-73. But on the other end Danielak backed his way down in the post and spun, making a turnaround jumper while getting fouled. The senior successfully converted the 3-point play that gave Liberty Hill the lead again at 76-75.
The Pirates took the lead right back at 77-76, but that’s when LaCaille answered with a tough drive that forced the referees to blow their whistles with La Vega defenders corralling around him.
As he’s done many times before, LaCaille calmly sunk his two free throws, putting the Runnin’ Panthers on top 78-77. Then after another defensive stop, LaCaille hit two more clutch free throws that gave Liberty Hill the lead for good (80-77) with 11.11 remaining.
“It was an impressive win for us,” said LaCaille. “When the fourth quarter started and we were down by 13, we knew we had some work to do and really picked it up. When I was shooting the free throws I was pretty nervous. I know my team depends on me to make them, but I love the pressure.”
La Vega’s Bradshaw heaved up one final desperation 3-point attempt, but it did not come close and Liberty Hill completed the comeback in thrilling fashion against a playoff-bound team in a game that had a postseason feel.
Boren said it took the entire team’s efforts to win the barnburner of a game.
“We had some really good contributions, obviously from Blake (Danielak) and I thought Shane (LaCaille) certainly hit some big shots at the right time,” he said. “And I thought Tyler (Eyre) did some really nice things. (The coaches) told them that this is a game that you are going to have in the playoffs and you’ve got to keep playing. I think in the long run it’s going to benefit us.”
Danielak said this type of win before district was needed and brought the team closer together.
“I think this (win) showed how good of a team we actually are,” he said. “Coach Boren said in the huddle that it does not mean anything if we can beat inferior teams that we are supposed to beat. It means a lot more to beat teams that can and are capable of beating you. I think this victory brought everyone closer more than we already are and we are definitely ready for Burnet and the games that follow.”
Liberty Hill will travel to Burnet Friday, Jan. 11, to take on its rival in the District 8-3A opener. Tipoff is set for 8 p.m.