Runnin’ Panthers look to finish strong, clinch playoff spot

Aedan Welch lays it in from close range to help the Runnin’ Panthers beat Brownwood 73-44 on Jan. 24. (Photo by Kathy Canady)

Aedan Welch lays it in from close range to help the Runnin’ Panthers beat Brownwood 73-44 on Jan. 24.
(Photo by Kathy Canady)

By Taylor Grafft

The Liberty Hill Runnin’ Panthers basketball team is trying to end the season with a district championship and are edging closer to clinching a playoff spot.

Liberty Hill has four games remaining on the schedule this season after they played Burnet on Wednesday night in a game that was not only for bragging rights and revenge over their biggest rivals, but it had district championship implications on the line. The Runnin’ Panthers were 4-1 entering into their game against Burnet and the Bulldogs were a perfect 5-0 after defeating Liberty Hill on Jan. 10, 52-47.

The Runnin’ Panthers will need to win three out of five of their last regular season games to clinch a spot in the playoffs, but that shouldn’t be a problem considering the way Liberty Hill is playing and the gap that Burnet and Liberty Hill have created between the rest of the district teams.

Going into the Burnet game, which took place at press time Wednesday, the Panthers were 20-8 overall. The Panthers have been beating their opponents by an average of 7.1 points. That margin has been led by the scoring of junior Callen Mikulencak, senior Tristan Heidelberg and freshman Zach Lord.

Mikulencak is averaging 15.6 points per game, while Heidelberg is averging 14.6 points per game, and Lord is averaging 8.9 points. Lord is also leading the team in rebounding with 5.9 rebounds per game.

The Runnin’ Panthers have added a secret weapon to their arsenal in recent games after Coach Barry Boren moved Carson Lowe, twin brother of Conner Lowe, to the varsity roster.

The Lowe brothers have been lighting up the scoreboard from three-point range ever since and have a unique bond that allows them to play on a different level when they’re on the court at the same time. Both are extremely accurate shooters with a deadeye from long-range on offense. On defense, they both hustle and get after the ball handler to force turnovers and create easy fast break opportunities.

Against Brownwood on Jan. 24, the Panthers won 73-44 and the Lowe brothers finished with a combined 29 points. Carson finished with 12 points on four three-pointers, three of which came in the second quarter. While Conner finished with 17 points and hit three three-pointers.

With the score of the Brownwood game out of reach, Coach Boren had a chance to rest his starters for almost the entire second half and got some valuable playing time for his bench players that will ultimately help build depth for when the Panthers try to make a deep run in the playoffs.

“All of our wins up to this point have been close,” said Boren. “They’ve been four-point wins, which means it could go either way. It’s nice to have a win like that where you don’t have to sweat it out either way. It was nice to have the opportunity to play some kids that we haven’t had a chance to play so much this season. Things are looking good for us and I like where the team is at right now. One of our goals this season was to get to 20 wins and we accomplished that (against Brownwood). Now our second goal is to win a district championship.”

Recently the Panthers have tried to change their offensive approach a little bit as they dive deeper into crucial district games and eye the district championship.

“We’ve tried to go away from the post a little more and away from the inside game so much,” Coach Boren said. “I felt like we needed to find our tempo again and in recent games we’ve been a lot more up-tempo. That starts with pressing the basketball on defense and passing and moving the ball quickly on offense.”