After slow start, Panthers top Navarro 63-26

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Coach Barry Boren’s 2015 Runnin’ Panthers are making their way toward State with a first round win over Navarro Tuesday. Team members are Carson Lowe, Conner Lowe, Callen Mikulencak, Tucker McMullan, Brady Lochte, Bryce Truslow, Riley LaDuque, Slater Foust, Clayton Oehrlein, Logan Gillentine, Josh Sudekum, Trey Jenkins, Zach Lord, Aeden Welch, Carter Ware and Clayton Kuhlman. (Kathy Canady Photo)

Coach Barry Boren’s 2015 Runnin’ Panthers are making their way toward State with a first round win over Navarro Tuesday. Team members are Carson Lowe, Conner Lowe, Callen Mikulencak, Tucker McMullan, Brady Lochte, Bryce Truslow, Riley LaDuque, Slater Foust, Clayton Oehrlein, Logan Gillentine, Josh Sudekum, Trey Jenkins, Zach Lord, Aeden Welch, Carter Ware and Clayton Kuhlman. (Kathy Canady Photo)

By BOB VARMETTE

KYLE – It was a battle of purple and gold Panthers Tuesday night at Lehman High School. And for the Liberty Hill Panthers, they got a little more of a battle than they bargained for from the Navarro Panthers in a Class 4A bi-district round game.

Particularly in the first half.

In the end, Liberty Hill won this catfight comfortably, pulling away in the second half for a 63-26 win over Navarro to advance to the area round against Brazosport at 7 p.m. Friday at Columbus.

“Certainly, we’ve got to get better,” Liberty Hill coach Barry Boren said. “We’re going to have to play better than that because we’re not going to see anybody else’s fourth-place team.”

They’ll likely be facing first-, second- or third-place teams from here on out. But Navarro, the fourth-place team out of District 26-4A gave the undefeated District 25-4A champions everything they could want in the first two quarters.

Navarro, playing mostly freshmen and sophomores, was in its first playoff game in seven years. The visiting Panthers had a plan – they came out in a man-to-man defense to confuse the host Panthers, changing from the 2-3 zone they played much of the season, and they were going to do everything they could to keep Liberty Hill from hurting them inside.

Navarro’s valiant effort defensively yielded results early. Navarro forced five Liberty Hill turnovers in the first quarter and that kept the host Panthers from pulling away, with Liberty Hill leading just 9-6 after the first eight minutes thanks to back-to-back buckets from Navarro in the final minute of the first quarter.

Navarro forced six more turnovers in the second quarter and Liberty Hill’s lead was just 26-13 at the break. The underdog Panthers didn’t let the favored Panthers settle comfortably into their offense, and lacking rhythm Liberty Hill found it difficult to get out and run in transition despite a poor shooting night from the visiting Panthers, to go along with 17 turnovers in the first half.

“We were able to stay close and make them work for it, at least,” Navarro coach Jim Weaver said. “We were hoping to have our best game and they would have not a good game. They obviously are a very good team and very well-coached. They do a great job. Our goal is someday to play like Liberty Hill.”

Liberty Hill (32-0) eventually pulled away from Navarro (14-17) in the second half, getting nine points each over the final two quarters from senior Callen Mikulencak and junior Conner Lowe. Mikulencak finished with a game-high 17 points and Lowe ended with 12 points.

Junior Carson Lowe also finished in double figures with 11 points, with seven coming in the fourth quarter as Liberty Hill showed its dominance in size, speed and athleticism.

Navarro did a good job of containing Liberty Hill’s inside game. Sophomore post Zach Lord and junior reserve post Aedan Welch scored just eight points combined – but defensively the size of Liberty Hill made the lane a no-go zone for Navarro.

“Their size really bothered us, and the speed of the game because they do a very good job of making you play faster than you want to play,” Weaver said. “Their length – we don’t see guys that big and that athletic that often. So it obviously bothers us.”

Weaver said that while Navarro aspires to be like Liberty Hill this was not the visiting Panthers’ night offensively. They were suffocated by the host Panthers’ defense the entire game, and Will Eveld, Jacob Cooper and Garrett Weaver each scored four points to lead the team, which turned the ball over 28 times.

Liberty Hill turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 19 times for the game. But the poor shooting for much of the game was perhaps more dismaying.

And it wasn’t just from the field or beyond the arc, where Conner Lowe hit four 3s, but the rest of the team struggled. The host Panthers also had issues at the free-throw line, particularly early – they were 1-of-4 in the first quarter and just 4-of-11 in the first half.

All’s well that ends well, and Liberty Hill advances. But the winning Panthers learned they have to get better.

“I think the win matters,” Conner Lowe said. “We didn’t play that well because maybe we were nervous or something, but we won so we just have to focus on our next game.”

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