Runnin’ to a title – Panther basketball State Tournament bound
By Mike Eddleman
The Runnin’ Panther basketball team is about to play its 40th game of the season, and while it may be the biggest contest of the season – on the biggest stage – Liberty Hill’s going to take the same workman-like approach to San Antonio it brought to the court in November.
“Anything can happen,” said Head Coach Barry Boren of the Friday matchup with Decatur. “We’re going to go back and review a lot of stuff, but what it comes down to is who executes in the moment and there’s always that chance someone is going to make a play. There is no pressure on us, we just have to go out there with an open mind and do what we do.”
The final stop on the way to this week’s state tournament was Kingsville, where Liberty Hill ousted West Oso 79-61 and and outlasted Navasota 59-56 in overtime.
Against a physical West Oso team, Boren said he told his team it would be important to jump out in front early.
“We compared this team to playing at the Whataburger Tournament against Burkburnet,” he said. “(Burkburnet) had us down 25-5 at the end of the first quarter and after that we outscored them for three quarters, but we just weren’t ready to play against a team that aggressive, so this time we said we wanted to start fast and we did.”
At the end of the first quarter the Panthers led by 7, thanks to a big contribution from Walker Baty who had nine of his team-high 18.
“It was funny because he was eating an ice cream and I said ‘If you eat that ice cream, I want to make sure you give us 10 and 10,’” Boren said laughing. “He actually gave us nine in the first quarter. His presence was really significant.”
By the half the lead had doubled with Liberty Hill ahead 38-24, and in the second half turned their focus to getting good inside looks and draining free throws.
Boren said Cade Cole has struggled at times from the free-throw line, but came up big against West Oso, shooting a perfect 14-of-14 from the charity stripe. In the game, the team hit 29 of 40 free throws.
The lack of three-point success didn’t phase the Panthers as they found other ways to produce offensively.
“We scored 77 points and we only hit two three-point shots which is not typical for us,” he said. “By the fourth quarter we were pretty much just shooting free throws and lay ups.”
Key contributions from the bench helped keep the Panthers fresh.
“Hunter Clayton had a big game off the bench, and Walker (Baty) off the bench had 18 points,” Boren said.
Three other players – Parker McCurdy (13), Cole (16) and Jareck Naylor (10) – joined Baty in double figures. Carson Perkins had nine, Clayton had eight, Kadin Knight scored three and Kaleb Bannon had two.
The Saturday matchup with Navasota was more of a grudge match from last year.
“That was a rematch of our regional quarterfinal game from last year where we ended their season,” Boren said. “They had four kids who played in that game and we had four kids.”
Liberty Hill started slow in a game that proved to be tight to the final buzzer where no one led at the end of a single quarter by more than five. While the Panthers lad at the end of three quarters, Navasota made a move in the final eight minutes.
“They took a lead in the fourth quarter and we actually had to come back and tie it to send it to overtime,” Boren said. “I think our kids played tight because it meant so much for them to win that game.”
Like the day before, the three-point shots were not falling and Liberty Hill had to look elsewhere to get key shots to fall.
“Again we only hit two three pointers, and we’ve hit as many as 17 in a game, so that really become a staple for us,” Boren said.
This time it was Naylor who stepped up big.
“Our savior in that last game was Jareck Naylor,” Boren said. “It was timely for him because he kind of struggled in the second half of district and seemed to find himself once we got to the playoffs. Late in the game, when we got behind we used timeouts to set up sideline plays to try to score and the last time out we called we ran a play and adjusted it to fit Jareck because he was having such a good game and he delivered for us.”
Whether it was Naylor’s big game in the final, or Baty’s against West Oso, the versatility of the Panther offense continued to make a difference.
“That’s one of the marks of a good team, you know when one guy’s not playing so well somebody else takes up the slack,” Boren said.
In the overtime, Liberty Hill got buckets from Naylor and Perkins to close it out and earn a state tournament spot.
Naylor finished with 23, Perkins had 12, and Baty 10. Others on the scoreboard were McCurdy (5), Bannon (4), Cole (3) and Knight (2).
Two games left
Decatur stands between the Panthers and a title shot Saturday.
The 1:30 p.m. game Friday will be the second matchup this season between the Panthers and Eagles.
“We’ve seen Decatur, they’ve seen us,” Boren said. “We feel like we’ve seen them at their best, but they haven’t seen us at our best. We have that to work from.”
Decatur came out on top in the game at the Whataburger Tournament 57-37, but the Panthers were just getting some players back on the court following the football championship game.
The Eagles come into the game 37-3, averaging 60 points per game and allowing only 41. Their three losses were by a combined 14 points and one of those was in overtime.
Boren said the most important thing his team could do early in the short week leading up to Friday’s game is rest.
“Our kids are tired, we got in at two in the morning, didn’t get a lot of rest over the weekend,” Boren said. “Turnaround time is really short.”