Bulldogs challenge early, but Panthers roll on

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By BOB VARMETTE

For The Independent

 

The final score belies the battle.

The Burnet Bulldogs put up a fight, but the Class 4A No. 5 Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers, slowed at the start, kept their season perfect with a 65-40 win Friday night in District 25-4A boys basketball at Liberty Hill High School.

“Burnet did a lot of good stuff and we didn’t handle it well at the very beginning,” Liberty Hill coach Barry Boren said. “When Zach (Lord) got into foul trouble … that’s tough. We sort of weathered that storm and we were able to come back and start doing some good things. It was a good test for us.”

Lord, the Panthers’ 6-foot-9 sophomore post, picked up two fouls on the first two possessions, and the Bulldogs (10-10, 1-2 District 25-4A) took advantage to take an early 4-0 lead in a very defensive first quarter.

The Bulldogs also took advantage of an uncharacteristic six first-quarter turnovers by the Panthers (24-0, 3-0) and had a 6-5 lead after the first eight minutes. Burnet, though, couldn’t keep up the defensive intensity; Liberty Hill did and slowly pulled away in the second quarter, boosted by seven points from senior guard Callen Mikulencak, who finished with a team-high 15 points.

With the lead at 23-12 at half, the Panthers appeared ready to run away from the Bulldogs. But Burnet responded with the first two buckets of the second half and closed the gap to 23-16, prompting a time out by Boren just 45 seconds into the third quarter.

Their equilibrium re-established, the Panthers got three big 3s from junior guard Conner Lowe, who ended with 13 points. The second – with 5:16 in the third – lifted Liberty Hill to a 31-18 advantage, effectively ending the Burnet challenge; Lowe’s third 3 gave the Panthers a 42-27 margin heading into the final quarter.

“They’re going to come out with their best game,” Mikulencak said. “I guess we just came out a little bit nervous. Last year we lost our first game to them and we really wanted to prove something. We came out a little sluggish, but we really picked it up in the second half.”

That included Lord. Saddled with the two early fouls, Lord spent a lot of the first half on the bench and finished with just one point. But in the second half, Lord scored 13 – including 11 in the final quarter.

Lord never fouled out of the game, which was a physical battle between the teams and saw a player from each side foul out.

“It’s a change in mindset – you have to go at them at a different angle,” Lord said. “You can’t go at them. You have to let them come to you. You just have to forget about the fouls and keep playing basketball.”

Senior point guard Brendan Jackson led the Bulldogs with a game-high 17 points – all but two coming in the second half. But Burnet’s production fell off rapidly after Jackson; no other player reached double figures.

The Bulldogs’ 6-7 sophomore post, Daniel Hurst, finished with six points, four coming in the first quarter. Hurst is one of seven sophomores on the Burnet roster, and four of them started Friday night against Liberty Hill.

Perhaps too young and too inexperienced to be intimidated by the No. 5 team in the state, the Bulldogs, so strong defensively early, eventually fell victim to the Panthers’ experience.

“They can make shots and they’ve got plenty of guys that can do a lot of great things,” Burnet coach Roy Kiser said. “It’s not an excuse, but we had two starters out tonight, both with the flu. That hurt us defensively more than anything.”

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