Runnin’ Panthers seize first place

By Joseph Garcia

Shane LaCaille (#15) and others look on after the Liberty Hill point guard launches a half-court shot that changed the game’s momentum against Lampasas Friday. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

With a little bit of help from their neighbors to the north, the Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers now sit in first place of the District 8-3A standings.

On Tuesday night, power officially shifted in the Runnin’ Panthers’ favor as Lampasas defeated Burnet 40-26, while Liberty Hill won a tough game on the road 51-43 over Gatesville. Now with two district games remaining (at Llano and at home vs. Brownwood), Liberty Hill has the 8-3A crown in view for the taking.

Liberty Hill Coach Barry Boren knows that while it was fortuitous for the Badgers to upset the Bulldogs, they must maintain the mentality of worrying about only themselves and what they can control.

“As I have said before, we cannot worry about what others are doing,” said Boren. “We must control what we do. That means we must travel to Llano and then defend home court vs. Brownwood. Of course, it was nice to get some help from Lampasas after beating Burnet, but Llano will be just like Lampasas and will be playing for that slim margin of being able to make the playoffs.”

In the tight win over Gatesville Tuesday night, Liberty Hill faced the hot shooting of the Hornets’ Danny Byrd, who lit it up from 3-point range for 23 points.

The Runnin’ Panthers, however, received major contributions from sophomore Callen Mikulencak and seniors Jadon Durity-Boatright (six points), Shane LaCaille (20 points), Blake Danielak (12 points) and Jessie Cousins (10 points).

“We played well last night,” Boren said. “Despite the effort from Byrd, we did a really good job of holding everyone else. We had big baskets from Callen (Mikulencak), Jadon (Durity-Boatright), Shane (LaCaille), Blake (Danielak) and Jessie (Cousins). (Cousins) really played well. Multiple times the defense fell off of him and others found him for timely shots. It was really good to see.”

But before Tuesday’s contest, Liberty Hill had to get passed a Lampasas team fighting for its playoff life on Friday, Feb. 1.

Much like their first meeting of the season, both defenses set the tone for the game as no points were scored for the first half of the first quarter. Liberty Hill finally broke the scoreless tie on a baseline out-of-bounds play that set Danielak up for a three, which is swished to make it 3-0.

After a Lampasas basket, Liberty Hill went on a 6-0 run that included timely buckets from Tristan Heidelberg and a pair of free throws from Tyler Eyre. The Badgers, however, closed out the first quarter with a 7-2 run of their won, cutting the margin to 13-9 after one quarter of play.

The second quarter was a different story as Liberty Hill began to score in increments of three.

LaCaille started off by draining a three from NBA range, followed by a 3-point attempt from Danielak, who was fouled on the shot. The 6-7 forward made all three of his shots from the charity stripe, which Mikulencak followed up with a 3-point bomb of his own to make the score 22-9 Liberty Hill.

Danielak then made a deep 3-pointer and two more free throws, giving him eight points in the second quarter. Durity-Boatright added a basket and a free throw to put the halftime score at 31-16 in favor of the Panthers.

Aided by four 3-pointers, Lampasas took the fight to Liberty Hill in the third quarter, outscoring the Runnin’ Panthers 14-9 in the period. The Badgers pulled within seven at 37-30 before the highlight of the night occurred.

With less than six seconds to play in the third and counting, LaCaille took the inbounds pass, dribbled the ball to half court and in between three defenders launched a shot that rattled in the basket as the buzzer sounded to end the quarter.

The play ignited the Liberty Hill bench and crowd and turned a poor quarter into an inspired one with the Panthers up 40-30.

“We played very uninspired in the third quarter,” Boren said. “Consequently, we lost any and all momentum. That changed with Shane’s (LaCaille) shot. It salvaged a very poor performance.”

Usually the closers in the fourth quarter, LaCaille and Danielak combined for just three points on three made free throws. Instead, Liberty Hill got stellar play from Cousins, who led the team with six fourth-quarter points, while Durity-Boatright scored three big points as well.

The Badgers tried desperately, but managed just seven points in the final frame as Liberty Hill held strong at home for a 52-37 victory.

“Jessie’s (Cousins) play in the fourth quarter sparked us,” Boren explained. “Blake (Danielak) and Shane (LaCaille) weren’t getting/hitting shots in the fourth. So, others had to step up. Jessie did that and Jadon (Durity-Boatright) did that.”

With their immediate goal being to win the next two games and become district champs, Boren has his team focused on exactly that and nothing they cannot control.

Liberty Hill will get Llano and Brownwood’s best shot in the upcoming matchups. While Brownwood has yet to log a single district win, the Yellowjackets have put a scare into the sails of the Runnin’ Panthers’ ship.

“They have a new coach who has instilled a new sense of hope,” Boren said. “After getting down 26-6 the last time we played them, Llano played us even the rest of the way. That allowed them to feel some degree of confidence. So, we take nothing for granted. We know we will have to play.”

Tipoff vs. Llano is set for 6:30 p.m. in Llano on Friday, Feb. 8, and 6:30 p.m. vs. Brownwood in Liberty Hill on Tuesday, Feb. 12.