GREAT BEND, Kan. - The Great Bend boys have come a long way in 2020. The Panthers lost their first game of the New Year against Buhler to fall to 4-3 on the season. Since then, Great Bend is 12-1 with a single 2-point falter against rival Hays. Saturday night, the Panthers won their 11th straight, claiming a share of the Western Athletic Conference title with a 38-31 win over Liberal.
“It’s pretty incredible that this group has gone on the run it has,” said Great Bend coach Tim Brooks. “It says a lot about the toughness of our kids. We’ve had to play games like this, we’ve played where we’ve had to play up and down and score 80. When it comes down to it, it’s our defense.
“Right after Christmas when we played Buhler and held them to the 30s, we should have won that game but we weren’t as good offensively that night. It’s a credit to their hard work. They’re such a great group. They have great chemistry and camaraderie that it makes easy as a coaching staff to work with them.”
Liberal did not go down without a fight. Trailing 18-8 in a low-scoring first half, the Redskins sped up the game in the third quarter and ultimately tied the game early in the fourth. Great Bend shot just 15 times in the first half. The Panthers made just four of 16 shots in a back-and-forth third quarter.
“We like to play fast but the shots weren’t falling tonight,” Brooks said. “This was our third game this week, and Liberal hadn’t played. They were very fresh and very physical with us. They switched screens, which made things tough on us. We still found ways to score. We got to the free throw line when we needed to. And defensively we got stops.”
Liberal had cut the deficit to four points when Panther junior Cal Dunekack scored on an inbounds play late in the third. The Redskins answered with a 3-pointer from junior Alex Lopez and shrunk the gap to 22-20 when Great Bend used another inbounds play from Alex Schremmer to Peyton Duvall to add to the cushion.
The Panthers led 26-23 after three quarters and Schremmer doubled the lead with a trey early in the fourth. The Redskins again had an answer with a basket and foul from senior Syris Dunlap. Into the bonus with 2:28 remaining, Liberal tied the game at 29 with a pair of free throws from senior Lee Hatcher.
It was all Great Bend after that as the Panthers closed out the game on a 9-2 run. Schremmer scored just seconds after Hatcher tied things up, then Great Bend forced a turnover and ran 65 seconds off the clock. Panther senior Ray Kuhlman made five of his six free throw attempts in the final 46 seconds and the Redskins missed on a pair of 3-point tries to seal their fate.
Early on, neither side found the bottom of the net until nearly four minutes in when Liberal senior Hunter Hatcher scored on a drive for a 2-0 lead. Great Bend got five first-quarter points from Schremmer to lead 7-6 after one. In a low-scoring second quarter, Panther senior Alex Olivas did most of the scoring with a trio of 3-pointers.
Dunlap paced Liberal with eight points. Hunter Hatcher added seven points, and Lee Hatcher and AJ Ramirez each scored six points. Lee Hatcher led his team with eight rebounds.
Olivas added a fourth-quarter basket to lead all players with 11 points. He also grabbed seven boards. Schremmer started and finished big for his 10 points. Kuhlman and Dalton Miller each added five points for the Panthers.
Liberal falls to 8-11 overall and will hit the road to open the Class 6A playoffs. Great Bend moves to 16-4 overall and 5-1 in the WAC. The Panthers split with Hays in a pair of games decided by a total of six points.
“It’s awesome for these guys,” Brooks said of the league title. “We let one slip away at Hays that we had in our back pocket. If not for that we’d be the outright champs.”