Runnin’ Panthers look to right the ship in first district game vs. Taylor

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Liberty Hill point guard Garrett Wright (#3) takes it to the rim against the Taylor Ducks on Tuesday night. The Panthers will continue district play at 8 p.m. Friday against Salado. (Alex Rubio Photo)

By KEITH SPARKS

Many high school basketball coaches will tell you there are three “seasons” that take place throughout the course of an entire basketball season. The first is pre-district, during which the Panthers went 10-10, the second is district, and the third is the playoffs.

On Tuesday, the Panthers looked to right the ship on opening night of their “second season.”

After an underwhelming pre-district season, capped off by a 1-3 performance in their most recent tournament over the weekend, Liberty Hill saw their first district game against Taylor at home this week as an opportunity for a fresh start, so to speak.

“When we had our bad tournament, the last thing I said to them before we broke out of our post-game discussion, I asked them, ‘Is there anything we can accomplish as a team? Is there anything we can do to make this seem like a good season?’, Head Coach Barry Boren said. “Somebody says ‘Win a district championship.’ I said ‘Exactly.’ That’s got to be the mindset, so this was the first step.”

Prior to facing the Panthers, the Taylor Ducks fell to Burnet by a whopping 40 points in their first district matchup, although they were missing arguably their two best players. Fortunately for the Panthers, the Ducks faced a similar fate on Tuesday in Liberty Hill.

The Panthers took over from the moment the ball was tipped off, keeping the Ducks on their heels with full-court pressure, forcing a number of turnovers that led to wide-open layups on the other end. While the Panthers got easy layups on one end, the Ducks were forced to take difficult jump shots on the other end that they missed more often than not.

Liberty Hill was able to capitalize on their height advantage throughout the game as Zach Lord and Josh Sudekum feasted on their smaller matchups, finding each other with post-to-post passes to set up easy buckets. The Panthers led 15-10 at the end of the first quarter, thanks in large part to their willingness to pass the ball.

“The thing that was the best is that we were unselfish with the basketball,” Boren said. “I mean, almost sometimes to a fault. At halftime I said ‘Look. It’s fun to play when you know guys will give you the ball.’ That’s just fun to play. You don’t mind busting your butt, because you know if you bust your butt you’re going to be rewarded. That’s the way the game should be played.”

The Panthers ran away with the game in the second quarter, their highest scoring quarter of the game, during which Sudekum scored 12 of his team-high 18 total points, most of which came from offensive rebound putbacks.

Liberty Hill seemed to turn up the defensive pressure with their starters at the end of the second quarter, turning steals into easy buckets time and time again en route to a 42-15 halftime lead. That energy was something that Coach Boren saw coming in the practices leading up to Tuesday’s game.

“We’ve had some games that we’d consider good games,” Boren said, “but even in those good games we didn’t have four complete quarters. I really had a feeling about tonight. I just felt like we had to play with more energy, and we did. We got a good performance out of our guys.”

The second half was more of the same from Liberty Hill, as the starting unit continued to press full-court, forcing all kinds of turnovers from the Ducks in the backcourt.

Halfway through the third quarter, Lord blocked a Taylor layup attempt, recovered his own block, and threw the ball up the court to Clayton Kuhlmann, who finished with a powerful dunk, sending the crowd and the rest of his team into a frenzy as the Panthers took a 56-19 lead. Kuhlmann finished the game with 16 points.

The Panthers ended the game by punishing the Ducks in the paint, continuing to connect on easy layup after easy layup, ultimately ending in a 76-38 victory and a 1-0 start to district play at home.

According to Coach Boren, the Panthers needed to address three things going into Tuesday’s matchup with the Ducks. The first was a lack of ball movement, the second was better full-court defensive pressure, and the third was consistent defensive focus in the half-court. All three were much improved on Tuesday.

“I thought we did all that,” Boren said. “We really did. We worked on it in practice yesterday. How could you not be pleased with a performance like that? It was a good win.”

The Panthers will continue their district season on Friday against Salado. Liberty Hill will play the Eagles at 8 p.m. Friday at Salado High School, followed by a home game against Llano next Tuesday at 8 p.m.

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