By Alex Byington
Killeen Daily 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."
The Eagles attempted another rally as Tucker hit a mid-range jumper to pull within six at 44-38 with just under seven minutes to play, but shot just 1-of-7 from the field and 2-of-5 from the free throw line while Liberty Hill pulled away for the closer-than-the-score win.
"Every time we get a chance, we'd miss a basket," Mann said. "We came down once again and just didn't shoot well enough to beat Liberty Hill. ... We just missed too many open shots."
Although the game got away late, the Eagles feel like Saturday's loss wasn't an indication of what's to come in 3A.
"It is may be a little bit bigger or whatever, but we can hang in there, whoever we play," Tucker said. "... And Liberty Hill's in our district, so we'll get two more shots at them."
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.