By KEITH SPARKS
The Panthers stamped their ticket to the Regional Tournament in Huntsville by traveling to Rockdale and beating Navasota handily by a final score of 89-73 on Tuesday, preceded by a win over Lorena in Killeen on Feb. 23.
According to Liberty Hill Head Coach Barry Boren, their impending trip to the Regional Tournament should come as no surprise based on the way they’ve been playing and the matchups they’ve been handed thus far in the playoffs.
“I said this to them about two weeks ago, ‘I really feel like things are set up for us to have a great shot at getting to the Regional Tournament,’” Boren said. “I felt like the bracket we were playing in, we matched up well with the people we were going to get a chance to play.”
The Panthers did match up well with Navasota, making that clear from the get-go by punishing them inside. At the end of first quarter, Liberty Hill held a 29-11 lead, thanks in large part to senior center Neil Stephens’ presence in the paint.
Navasota was able to play the Panthers pretty much even through the rest of the game, but was never able to bring the deficit within single digits. At halftime, the Panthers held a comfortable 16-point lead.
The second half was more of the same, as the Panthers held on to their 16-point lead, taking a 65-49 lead through the end of the third and holding onto that lead through the end of the game. Navasota made a small run with just over two minutes to play in the fourth quarter, but the Panthers kept them at bay.
Stephens dominated inside throughout the game, finishing with a game-high 31 points. Senior wing Bryce Truslow added 11, point guard Carson Perkins finished with 8, and Chad Leath added 6 off the bench.
On Feb. 23, the Panthers traveled to Killeen to take on Lorena in the second round of the playoffs, having already lost to them once earlier in the season in a two-point game. Friday was a different story, as the Panthers took the lead early on and held onto it, despite a rough third quarter. Ultimately, the Panthers would go on to win by a final score of 59-50.
Boren explained that Lorena was missing a starter due to injury, and he expected his guys to play harder than they did during their first matchup with Lorena in December, making this a different matchup than it was in December.
“They were a little like us,” Boren said. “They lost a starter, broke his hand. I felt like when we played them at our place in December, it wasn’t a good representation of who we were, and I told them that. I said I thought late in the game, they played harder than we did.”
Boren also said that, although the loss of starting shooting guard Parker McCurdy to appendicitis obviously hurts the Panthers, it’s allowed other players on the team to step up in his absence. Truslow, in particular, has made a huge impact over the past few games.
“We had that little setback with Parker, but what it’s done is it’s given some other kids a chance to step up,” Boren said. “Our last game, Bryce is doing more things now than he’s been doing. He didn’t have to do it before, and now we need him to do it and he’s done it. Jareck (Naylor), big lift off the bench tonight.”
Perkins made it clear that his jump shot was falling early on, hitting four threes in the first half, most of which were well beyond the arc. Many of the players that stepped up on Friday, though, had been playing for the junior varsity team during the regular season or had only small roles on varsity, and were called upon to rise to the challenge in the playoffs.
Naylor, in particular, was huge for the Panthers in the second quarter, hitting back-to-back threes in a matter of seconds to build a lead headed into halftime. Junior David Basalla was forced to step up, as well, playing more at the point guard position than he’s used to as Perkins got into foul trouble during the third quarter and McCurdy remained out.
“What was huge was we played a lot without Carson at point guard tonight, and Parker has been our backup point guard, so David Basalla had to do that,” Boren said. “It’s a tribute to the kids. Chad (Leath) did some good stuff off the bench.”
Perkins finished Friday’s game with a game-high 25 points, while Stephens added 11 and Truslow added 9.
The Panthers’ next game will take place at Sam Houston State University for the Regional Tournament’s first round matchup against Yates at 6:15 p.m. on Friday.