HAMILTON — Salado’s schedule is wearing on the players, but it does not show.
The Eagles opened play at their third tournament in three weeks Thursday, facing recurring foe Lampasas for a third time. While the series of 10 games over 14 days has the players begging for a break, their performance on the court showed little decline as they defeated the Badgers 67-40 in the first round of the Ted Jones Memorial Tournament.
After the victory, Salado head coach Kenny Mann admitted his players could use some downtime.
“We started off slow,” he said. “I think we are still having a hangover from our tournament (last week). We didn’t play very well against Moody the other night, and I think we are tired.”
The No. 24 Class 2A team fell into an early hole, but quickly discovered a second wind and never trailed after halftime, outscoring the Badgers 27-7 to close out the game, advancing to face Gatesville in the second round Friday.
Led by seniors Dane Hankamer and Kyle Heiner, who combined to score 11 of the Eagles’ 19 fourth-quarter points, Salado (11-3) was never challenged after Heiner’s basket in the paint provided a three-point cushion, 36-33, spurring his team’s late surge.
Heiner, however, credited Salado’s team defense for the victory-clinching run.
“We started pressing, and we got easy baskets off turnovers,” the guard said. “That is what picked up the intensity for us.”
His coach agreed.
“It changed the whole way the momentum was going,” Mann said. “It seemed like it was all going in their favor and then a couple of turnovers here and there, and things just started rolling for us after that.”
Lampasas committed 11 of its 19 turnovers after halftime and connected on just 2 of 9 field goal attempts in the fourth quarter and did not score a point in the final three minutes of the game.
Although Badgers head coach Rob Shivers was quick to give Salado credit, he pointed to his team’s lack of continuity as a major reason for its struggles.
“November and December is just about trying to learn how to play together,” he said. “Obviously, we are trying to win, but the significance of the score is less than the significance of learning to play together. Hopefully, we will figure it out at some point.”
Lampasas (4-8) lost its three games against Salado this season by a combined 50 points, but the Badgers had an opportunity to end the streak Thursday.
After the Badgers jumped out to an early 13-8 lead on James Radenz’s 3-pointer, the Eagles began chipping away at the deficit from the free-throw line and went into the second quarter trailing 16-13.
Lampasas continued committing fouls, and Salado continued capitalizing, making 15 of 20 free throws in the first half, and despite making just three field goals in the second quarter, the Eagles outscored the Badgers 18-10 in the period to create a 31-26 halftime advantage.
The contest remained relatively close through the third quarter, but got out of control in the fourth as Salado’s defensive pressure led to a 21-5 run to end the game.
Hankamer and Heiner each shot a dozen free throws in the win, finishing with 21 and 19 points, respectively, while James Franklin scored 12 points and Gary Spencer added 10 to lead the Badgers.
The win sets up a 6:30 p.m. game against Gatesville today. with the winner advancing to Saturday’s championship game.
After that, Mann intends to give his players a much-deserved break as they transition into a two-games-per-week schedule.
“I told them if we can get through this weekend, we’ll be all right,” he said.