By Merle Bertrand, Sportswriter
A lot of teams have tried to slow down the game against the Liberty Hill Runninâ€™ Panthers this season, even if thatâ€™s not their natural style of play.
Slow and deliberate was the style of play for the Panthersâ€™ Area Round playoff opponent, the La Vernia Bears, who had won twenty games during the season while averaging less than fifty points per game.
Coach Barry Borenâ€™s Panthers have also had plenty of success with their up-tempo style of play, however. When the dust settled last Friday night (Feb. 24) in Wimberley, it was the Panthers who prevailed, as Liberty Hill cruised to a 77-43 victory over the gutsy Bears.
It wasnâ€™t easy for the Panthers (32-3), however. The Bears took enough air out of the ball to keep within striking range at the half, with Liberty Hill heading to the locker room up by fifteen at 33-18.
The Panthers exploded out of the gate in the third quarter, as their relentless press, sharp shooting from the field, and waves of contributions from the Panthersâ€™ deep bench finally wore down the Bears (20-10). Their 27-8 burst put the Panthers comfortably out in front 60-26 after three quarters, allowing Coach Boren to empty his bench in the fourth quarter.
The win erased the bitter taste for Panthers fans left over from two consecutive first-round playoff losses. It also took a considerable amount of pressure off of Coach Boren and his team.
â€śYou know, itâ€™s like a heavy weightâ€™s been lifted off of our shoulders,â€ť Boren admitted. â€śA lot has been said and made out of the fact that, you know, weâ€™ve won a lot of games the last two years and lost in the first round of the playoffs, but weâ€™ve tried to keep things on a pretty nice keel. I think a lot of times, the luck of the draw had something to do with it.
â€śI donâ€™t think we played as crisply in the first half as we could have,â€ť the coach critiqued his teamâ€™s performance. â€śBut again, this first playoff game, when you have a bye on Tuesday, is just a tough deal. Itâ€™s tough for a lot of people and Iâ€™m glad itâ€™s behind us. The first playoff gameâ€™s always the toughest one.â€ť
The Panthers shot 28-of-57 (49 percent) from the field and 8-of-24 (33 percent) from the 3-point line against La Vernia. Liberty Hill shot 13-of-16 (81 percent) from the charity stripe.
Nine players cracked the scoring book for the Panthers, led by Blake Danielakâ€™s 20 points, 18 rebounds and nine rebounds. Shane LaCaille 18 points and seven assists, while Stephen Graves added 12 points, two assists, two rebounds and two steals.
Other contributors included senior Tyeler Greenstreet (eight points, two rebounds, two steals and an assist); senior Blake Hare (six points, two assists and two rebounds); freshman Callen Mikulencak (five points and three rebounds); senior Nik Crozier (four points and one assist; senior Corey McKinzey (two points, two assists, two rebounds and a steal; and junior Austin Davis (two points and one rebound).
The depth on display did not go unnoticed by Coach Boren.
â€śThe thing that has made our team special is the fact that weâ€™ve had our role players step up and really, a lot of the things that they did go unnoticed,â€ť Boren stated. â€śEverybody is cognizant of Shane because he handles the ball so much and Stephen because he hits those outside shots and Blake because he blocks shots and makes baskets, butâ€¦itâ€™s really been a combined effort.
â€śI think thatâ€™s one thing that makes you feel so good about whatâ€™s happened for these guys is they feel good about their contribution. So itâ€™s been a total team effort.â€ť
The Panthers now advance to the Regional Quarterfinals for the first time since 2009. They will meet Hondo on Tuesday night (Feb. 28) at San Marcos High School for the right to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.