Most likely, no one outside of the Van Alstyne basketball family would have given the Panthers much of a chance going into last Friday night’s area round game against Ponder, played at Sanger High School.
The Lions, ranked by the Texas Basketball Coaches Association as the No. 4, Class 2A team in the state, had a ton of postseason experience going for them.
The upstart Van Alstyne team, even with wins over two highly ranked teams this season, did not get much attention on the big stage.
Van Alstyne wasted no time in getting the attention of the Lions, however, coming out of the gate with a 22-11 run in the first quarter, spurred on by the 3-point shooting of Jake Hillebrenner, Colin McCaskill and Zach Davis.
Jared McMakin had to make his three the hard way (fouled on a 3-point attempt.) The sophomore guard connected on three from the free-throw line to help key the run. His 3-pointer to open the second quarter gave the Panthers their biggest lead of the night at 25-11.
Ponder, a team with four state title banners hanging from their home rafters, had a big man in the middle as Clay Morgan proved to be a problem for the Panther defense. Morgan, who had scored 35 points in the Lions’ bi-district win, lit up the scoreboard for 37 in this one.
Morgan scored 19 points in the first half, 13 in the second quarter, as the Lions cut the Panther lead down to three nearing the close of the first half.
A buzzer-beating basket by Davis for the Panthers made it a 32-27 game at the break.
The three-person officiating crew was particularly stringent on their interpretations of offensive fouls. The crew called nine of that type in the first half, and didn’t favor either team in their calls.
The Lions went to the free-throw line six more times than Van Alstyne in the first half, but most of that discrepancy was due to the fouls on Morgan, who was tough to guard down low.
McMakin scored for Van Alstyne to open the second half, but Morgan and freshman guard Chase Harris were doing work for the Lions.
An old-school, three-point play by Morgan gave Ponder its first lead,36-35, with three minutes left in the third period.
A 3-pointer by McMakin put the Panthers back in charge as the teams started the fourth period looking at a 40-38 Van Alstyne advantage.
The lead changed hands four times over the final eight minutes of regulation. Isaiah Boling made two free throws then added a pair of 3-point shots to give Van Alstyne a 49-48 lead with just over two minutes left.
A Harris 3-ball put Ponder back on top, but another Boling 3-ball forced a Ponder timeout with a minute left and the Panthers up 54-51.
The defense couldn’t stop Morgan, however, and the 6-5 senior put back an offensive rebound then split on a pair from the free throw line to tie the game at 54-all at the end of regulation.
Zach Davis and Isaiah Boling each nailed 3-pointers to open the four-minute overtime period, but Harris answered for the Lions, sending in his second 3-pointer of the contest to cut the lead in half.
Van Alstyne got a big break midway through the period when a fifth foul was whistled on Morgan, sending the leading scorer to the bench.
Van Alstyne pushed its lead to 62-57, but Ponder rallied to tie the game, forcing a second overtime period. With the game tied at 66-66, Harris nailed a 3-pointer for the Lions and Van Alstyne was never able to regain the lead.
A floater in the lane by Boling was waved off, another offensive foul being the call, and a 3-pointer from the corner by McCaskill dropped in but spun out as Ponder got the win.
Van Alstyne fans should be nothing but proud of the effort the Panthers gave in this game. At this point in the season, there are a lot of unknown bumps and bruises players are dealing with, and we do know that McCaskill was nowhere near 100 percent in this one.
Zach Davis will be tough to replace. His leadership and poise in the clutch will be missed as he moves on to bigger and better things. Thanks for that half-court shot on this same floor back in December against Saginaw Chisholm Trail.
The Panthers, a team which won just 10 games last year, closed out their 2013-14 season with an overall record of 26-4 and second place in the district with a 10-2 mark.
We will leave the last words to head coach Russell Best.
"These guys worked hard all year, they pushed each other to get better as a team," said the coach. "I feel blessed to have coached them."
Van Alstyne 22 10 8 14 8 8 — 70
Ponder 11 16 11 16 8 11 — 73
VA: Zach Davis 18, Isaiah Boling 18,Jared McMakin 12, Jake Hillebrenner 7, Colin McCaskill 5, Seth Caraway 5, Bailey Thorpe 4,Dalton Jones 1