By Joseph Garcia
Tuesday night’s clash between the Liberty Hill Lady Panthers and the Burnet Lady Bulldogs was a classic battle between the two rivals. With Burnet taking the first meeting of the season at home earlier this month, Liberty Hill returned the favor and protected home court.
The Lady Panthers entered the fourth quarter down by one, but fueled by physical defense they forced Burnet to turn the ball over and overcame the deficit, pulling together as a team to win 43-38.
With the victory, Liberty Hill improved to 6-2 (14-15 overall) and are now tied with Burnet (6-2) atop the 8-3A District standings with two games remaining. Not only did the win tie them with the Lady Bulldogs for first place, but it also clinched a playoff spot for Coach Matt Kirschner and the Lady Panthers.
“I told the girls going in (to Tuesday’s game) that we have to win one of three (games) to make it to the playoffs,” said Kirschner. “Our No. 1 goal all year was to make it to the playoffs, and then you can start worrying about first, second or third.”
It was a close affair throughout with both teams’ defenses out-playing the offenses to start. But after nearly three minutes without a bucket, senior Maddie Metzger went to work, scoring eight of Liberty Hill’s 10 first quarter points. Erin FitzGerald added a bucket to help give the Lady Panthers a 10-4 lead after one.
Liberty Hill’s lead swelled to nine (16-7) after a jumper in the lane by senior Shelby Hart late in the second quarter, but Burnet stormed back to tie it up 16-16. The Lady Panthers, however, were able to take a two-point lead (18-16) into the locker room at half time after Danielle Wolesensky hit a jump shot.
Burnet came out the aggressor in the second half, outscoring Liberty Hill 13-10. The Lady Bulldogs enjoyed their first lead of the game at 19-18, then 21-18 before Shelby Whitten tied it up (21-21) with a 3-pointer.
The Lady Bulldogs, however, came back to stretch their lead out to six points at 27-21 before Ashlee Walker hit a three and Metzger put in four more points. Liberty Hill closed the gap, but Burnet still led 29-28 with one quarter remaining.
“I told them before we went out in the third quarter that it’s going to take all of us,” Kirschner said. “It’s not one person; it’s going to be everybody because no one plays one-on-one.”
Walker tied the game (29-29) with a free throw to start the fourth quarter and Liberty Hill took back the lead at 33-29 after back-to-back buckets from Metzger.
“Our defense was good; Maddie (Metzger) had a good game offensively,” Kirschner explained. “We played with more intensity, started getting deflections, but we also came up with the loose balls, which is what you have to do. The girls are clicking at the right time. You always want to peak at the end of the season, you don’t want to peak early. We’ve figured it out and they are playing hard for each other.”
Liberty Hill’s defense stepped up and forced turnovers in the waning minutes of the game, forcing Burnet to foul. Clutch free throws from Metzger, FitzGerald, Walker and Whitten closed out the game and the 43-38 win for the Lady Panthers.
The win meant a whole lot more than other district tilts with Burnet as it was the last time the Bulldogs will visit the Panthers Den. Next year, the teams will play in the new high school, which opens in August. The Lady Panthers banned together, played as a team and as a result were able to celebrate the victory at home, which tied them for first place.
“I feel like we really pulled together as a team and we wouldn’t have been able to do it without each other,” said Whitten who finished with six points. “And I feel like since this is the last time Burnet and Liberty Hill will ever play each other on this court, it really meant something to us. We felt like we really needed to beat them, we pulled out with a win and it was awesome.”
When the season began, there was a big question mark as to whether or not the Lady Panthers would be good enough to return to the playoffs after such a historic run last season. Whitten, the starting point guard, said the team’s chemistry is the biggest reason for their late season success.
“At the beginning of the season (most people) didn’t think we would be able to do it (make the playoffs),” Whitten said. “We didn’t have much chemistry together since we were a really young team. But throughout practices and the tournaments that Coach K put us in, we created chemistry and became a lot closer as a team and have come really far.”
Coach Kirschner is glad to have secured a postseason berth, but he is not satisfied with simply making the playoffs. There are still very attainable goals for his team to reach and it starts with the second meeting of the season with Lampasas on Friday, Feb. 1, at home.
“We’re in the playoffs, but if we want first place we still have to win out,” he said. “The girls know how to do it. They know what it’s going to take and I have to get back to work tonight and start working on the game plan for Lampasas.”