By Joseph Garcia
HAMILTON — After making the trek to Hamilton High School the Liberty Hill Lady Panthers became the objects of timely shooting from opponent Mineral Wells in the area round of the playoffs on Feb. 15.
It looked as if Liberty Hill would decide the game’s outcome early on after jumping out to an 11-2 lead in the first quarter. But the Mineral Wells Lady Rams nudged their way back in the game and took their first lead on a 3-pointer from senior Niya Benavides, which game them a 35-33 advantage heading into the fourth quarter.
That shot seemingly gave the Lady Rams, the aggressors for most of the night, all the momentum and confidence they needed to close out Liberty Hill for a 45-41 win.
“The biggest thing was that their shooter (Benavides) got loose twice there at the end of the third quarter and early in the fourth and we just didn’t recover,” said Liberty Hill Coach Matt Kirschner. “We quit forcing the turnovers that we forced early. They did their job of adjusting to our defense after the 2-1-2 caught them off guard.”
Senior Maddie Metzger had a solid outing, scoring seven of her 15 points in the first quarter to help build a Liberty Hill lead. Sophomore Ashlee Walker played an inspired game with nine points and gave Liberty Hill its first lead (4-2) with a steal and a layup. Then senior Shelby Hart opened things up after swishing a three, giving the Lady panthers a 9-2 advantage early on.
Liberty Hill pushed its lead to 11-2 before Mineral Wells began chipping away until closing the gap at 16-13 to end the first quarter.
Mineral Wells outscored Liberty Hill 9-7 in the second quarter, however, with Metzger scoring four more points and senior Danielle Wolesensky adding a three. At the half, Liberty Hill held the slightest of leads at 23-22.
Coach Kirschner said he was proud of the way his players stepped up in the absence of assists leader and starter Shelby Whitten (hand), despite having to slow the pace down a bit.
“We didn’t get up and down the floor as well (without Whitten),” he said. “But Ashlee (Walker) and Erin (FitzGerald) both did a great job of handling the ball, especially on their three-quarters-court pressure. But we just couldn’t get out in transition.”
The second half started off with a three from senior Erin FitzGerald. Then after Blair Lord hit a shot, Walker banked in a 3-pointer to boost Liberty Hill’s lead to 31-26. The Lady Rams, however, went on a 9-2 run that included Benavides’ momentum-grabbing three at the end of the period, putting Mineral Wells up 35-33 heading into the fourth.
Liberty Hill managed just eight points in the fourth quarter as Mineral Wells began playing keep away with the ball to slow the game down. With the score tied 35-35, another three from Benavides gave Mineral Wells the lead.
The Lady Panthers took the lead back at 41-40, but could not maintain it and eventually fell 45-41.
One of Friday night’s storylines included the officiating and the calls they were and were not making. In the first quarter, they whistled both teams for traveling an inordinate amount of times.
Then there was the discrepancy between the amount of foul calls that were made against Liberty Hill compared to Mineral Wells. At the 2:01 mark in the third quarter, Liberty Hill had 21 fouls called against, while Mineral Wells was whistled just seven times.
As a result of the Lady Rams’ aggressiveness, Lady Panthers’ leading scorer Metzger fouled out with 5:37 to play in the fourth quarter and Cera Dixon with 22.23 seconds left.
“What’s funny about that is that I had no problem with the fouls because they attacked the basket,” Kirschner said. “Their kids went hard at the rim and went for the fouls. We settled for jump shots and 3-pointers most of the game. I could only think of two or three times where a foul should have been called, anything else, we weren’t close enough to them to get the fouls (called). But overall when you don’t attack the basket and you don’t play aggressive that way, you’re not going to get the calls.”
While in a losing effort, it was encouraging to see some of Liberty Hill’s future leaders play up to the competition in the heat of a playoff battle. With Bailey Bevers getting her first start, Walker playing hard at both ends and Lord gaining confidence and playing time, the Lady Panthers will be in good hands next season.
“I think Bailey (Bevers) and Blair (Lord) both stepped up real well and had good games, which is a good outlook for the future as (Walker),” Kirschner said. “There’s three off next year’s group that showed they are capable of stepping up to that next level.”
But while it was great to see the girls play hard, smart and with heart, it was seemingly just not meant to be this season. Coach Kirschner consoled his team after the disappointing early exit from the playoffs.
“I told them ‘I wish I could do more’ for them,” he said. “They deserved to win that game, we just didn’t. They did everything I asked; they played through the adversity and ran the game plan like I drew it up. We just came out on the short side of it.”
The 2012-2013 Lady Panthers proved plenty during the season and reached heights some folks thought not possible after such a successful run last season. Sure, this team may not have been together for as long and had fewer seniors. But they showed will, toughness and togetherness at the end of the season to earn the 8-3A District Championship after not knowing if the playoffs were even a possibility.
“We didn’t do what we set out to do, but we did accomplish some goals this year that no one gave us a chance for,” Kirschner said. “Winning the district championship, especially being 1-2 at one point, was kind of far-fetched. But the girls put together a good year and a good run.”