By Alex Byington
Harker Heights Herald
SALADO - A longtime participant, Liberty Hill coach Barry Boren considered not attending this year's Coach Smith Memorial tournament in hopes of avoiding a pre-district meeting with new 25-3A foe Salado.
Rather than back out, the Panthers attended for the ninth straight year and, lo and behold, met up with the host Eagles in the championship game.
There, the No. 13 Panthers closed out the third quarter on a 11-1 run to pull away late in a 56-42 victory Saturday afternoon.
"It makes it hard because playing a team two times is hard enough, and playing a team three times in almost miserable, but the game promised to be everything I thought it would be," Boren said.
Giving up a season-high 56 points, the upstart Eagles (8-2) lost for just the second time this season in their first big test at 3A after moving up from 2A last year.
"This was kind of our measuring stick," Salado coach Kenny Mann said. "Our average margin of win was 30 points up until tonight, so I'm asking myself, 'Are we that good, or are we playing teams that are that bad?'
"So when you play a team like Liberty Hill, and they're really good, and you're with them until the end of the game, that let's you know, 'Yeah, we're pretty good.'"
After shooting a paltry 3-of-18 over the first 10 minutes of the game, and falling behind 17-7 early in the second quarter, Salado began to turn things around late as senior guard Jacob Heiner hit a buzzer-beating layup to make it 27-22 at halftime.
From there, the Eagles came out of the break inspired.
Salado 6-foot-7 post Braxton Tucker put in a fancy reverse layup 37 seconds into the half and fueled an 11-4 run with seven of his game-high 18 points to tie it at 33-33 with four minutes to play in the third.
"We didn't come out and change a whole lot, because I felt like what we were doing was good, we just needed to hit a few more shots," Mann said. "We wanted to try and get Braxton in the middle of their zone a little bit more, and when he did get there in the second half, he did good stuff."
But the Panthers (10-3) wasted little time in answering back.
Liberty Hill senior guard Sam Beans drilled a 3-pointer 10 seconds later and the Eagles turned the ball over on four straight possessions for an 11-1 Panthers run to enter the fourth quarter leading 44-34.
"We just made a couple of blunder decisions," Mann said of the shift. "We got a little impatient and threw it away."
Tucker, who had a double-double with 10 rebounds against Liberty Hill, was one of three senior Eagles named to the all-tournament team along with Heiner and fellow guard Tony Sager. Lady Eagle senior wing Hadley Joiner, who combined for 55 points over three tournament games Thursday and Friday, was selected with senior post Jenna Sebek on the girls' side.
Eagles return to final, Lady Eagles take third
Jumping out to early leads, the Salado boys and girls basketball teams gave the home fans plenty to cheer about Friday, the second day of the ninth annual Coach Smith Memorial basketball tournament.
After the Lady Eagles pressured their way to the bronze trophy, their Eagle counterparts did them one better by advancing to the tournament championship game with a dominating 57-35 semifinal victory over Waco Connally.
It will be the first time the Salado boys have been in the championship game of their own tournament since winning it in all in 2002 and 2003.
"We're excited about it," Mann said of playing for the title. "We've played well in this tournament and did what we needed to do to get there, so we feel it's icing on the cake just to get to play in it."
It was the third straight rout for the hot Eagles (8-1), who easily dispatched Austin Travis 79-40 earlier Friday and rolled over Aubrey, 55-33, on Thursday. Salado will play No. 13 Liberty Hill in the title game at 3 p.m. today.
Following an admittedly "embarrassing" 49-32 semifinal loss to Smithville earlier in the day, the Lady Eagles (6-8) redeemed themselves later, using heavy pressure to force 30 turnovers in a 56-26 rout of Somerville to take home the third-place trophy at their own tournament.
"We were hoping to be playing tomorrow (in the girls' championship game), but to end the tournament with this kind of game was good for the players," Salado coach Jeanette McKinney said. "We needed a game like this."
Forcing the Lady Yeguas to turn the ball over on nine of their first 10 possessions, the Lady Eagles jumped out to a 13-0 lead with 2½ minutes left in the first and were never really challenged.
It was a big difference from their earlier game against Smithville, where it was the Lady Tigers who were the aggressors, going on a 13-4 run late in the first quarter and opening a 10-point lead on Salado they wouldn't relinquish.
"We would have liked to have gotten first, because it's our home tournament, but we know we have things to work on and this will open our eyes up to work harder," said Salado junior guard Alexis Bowman, who scored 14 points against Somerville after going scoreless against Smithville.
Boys, girls both roll in opening game
Beginning with back-to-back 3-pointers from Joiner, the Lady Eagles went on a 17-3 run over a more than eight minute span between the first and second quarters and beat 2A McGregor 55-40 in their opening round tournament game Thursday.
Colton Meiman and Braxton Tucker combined for 22 points in the first half and the Eagles mounted a commanding 42-18 lead en route to a convincing 55-33 victory over Aubrey in the opening round of the Coach Smith Memorial basketball tournament.