By Joseph Garcia
BURLESON – When it was announced last year that Liberty Hill would be moved to Region I, there figured to be a change with longer travel and tougher competition. On Friday night, both those aspects held true when the Panthers and their followers made the 163-mile trek to Burleson High School to take on what looked to be a state-bound Burkburnett, which seemingly could not miss a shot.
The game had a frenetic pace in the first quarter with little defense and in the second quarter the game slowed down, as Liberty Hill trailed by just two (34-32) at halftime. But Burkburnett’s dynamic duo of Elijah Strickland and Chavaz Jackson combined to score 55 points to lead the Bulldogs to a 76-63 victory over Liberty Hill in the Region I-3A area matchup at Elks Arena.
Liberty Hill (30-4) Coach Barry Boren knew it would be a tough task to take down the Bulldogs and their sharp shooters.
“They were very good and I knew that going into the game,” said Boren. “Because of what they did, and their personnel, we had to adjust the way that we wanted to try to play. So, we knew what to do, we just didn’t get it done. We said we had to stop their wing shooters Strickland and Jackson, and we had to keep them off of the offensive boards. Strickland had 28 and Jackson 27. Their shots were deep and very consistent.”
A track meet broke out in the first quarter and the Runnin’ Panthers kept pace as five different Liberty Hill players scored – all seniors – led by six from Jadon Durity-Boatright. Blake Danielak, who finished with a team-high 24, added four in the opening period along with Tyler Eyre and Jessie Cousins who put in two.
Josh While nailed the team’s first three, which game the Panthers a 17-14 lead and later sunk two free throws to put Liberty Hill up 19-14. At the end of one, Liberty Hill looked to be in good shape with a 21-18 advantage, but Burkburnett’s best was yet to come.
The Panthers came out in the second quarter and matched their largest lead of the game at 25-20 after Callen Mikulencak scored on a reverse, dribble-drive layup down the heart of the Bulldog defense. Danielak scored six in the period, but Liberty Hill was outscored 16-11 led by four first-half 3-pointers from Strickland.
Strickland’s four 3-pointers in the first half was part of hot shooting for the Bulldogs. Meanwhile Liberty Hill missed some easy buckets and could not convert on some Burkburnett turnovers. Liberty Hill was lucky to be down just two points (34-32) at halftime.
Burkburnett (24-9) continued to push the tempo to its liking and tightened down on defense in the second half.
Danielak and Shane LaCaille did as much as they could with the defense swarming between them. In the third quarter Danielak scored 12 of the Panthers’ 14 points in the period and in the fourth quarter LaCaille took charge, scoring 12 of Liberty Hill’s 15 points.
It was difficult for the Panthers to match up with both Strickland and Jackson as the two combined for 32 points in the second half. Strickland finished with a game-high 28 points on six made threes, while Jackson totaled 27 on three made 3-pointers.
“We led after the first quarter; we trailed by two at intermission,” Boren explained. “But, those two mentioned (Strickland and Jackson) heated up in the third quarter and we could not match them. Burkburnett also got out of their full-court press and dropped back and pressured in the half court. We had been breaking their press for baskets; we could not keep that up in the second half. Then, we also gave up 16 offensive rebounds to other players.”
At the end of three, Liberty Hill was down 56-48. The Panthers cut the lead to 56-50 to start the fourth quarter, but with the margin widening and the clock ticking, Liberty Hill’s 30-win season came to an end with Burkburnett winning 76-64.
Coach Boren’s message to the team after the game was the same anytime they are defeated: He did not like it.
“The difference this time was that it marked finality,” he said. “So, that was painful for all. My message (Monday) was one of reflection on our accomplishments. No one thought we could win 30 games again. Some probably doubted that we could win our district after Burnet beat us in the opener.”
Liberty Hill has several players named to the 8-3A All-District Team, which will be released at a future date, and Coach Boren will certainly miss all six seniors he had the pleasure of coaching throughout their high school careers.
Liberty Hill’s program will lose LaCaille, Danielak, Durity-Boatright, White, Eyre and Cousins to graduation this spring. But the Panthers will bring back Mikulencak, Heidelberg and Austin Boliek, who all showed tremendous growth this year.
While there might be a bitter taste in his mouth right now, there is still plenty for Boren to feel good about.
“I will miss the talent of players like Shane (LaCaille) and Blake (Daneilak),” Boren said. “I will miss the presence of the rest. Except for Tyler (Eyre), I have coached these guys for the last four years. They have each grown in (their) own way. I feel good about that.”