BY MACK McCLURE
Last season, the Great Bend High School Lady Panthers basketball team was trying to avoid the basement in the Western Athletic Conference, ultimately beating Hays to finish fourth in the final standings.
Fast-forward to 2011, where Great Bend rallied from a three-point deficit early in the fourth quarter to topple Liberal 56-50 on Friday night at Panther Fieldhouse.
Great Bend improved to 3-1 at the midpoint of the conference season and 6-8 overall, sitting just one game back of defending WAC champion Dodge City.
“We’re halfway through WAC and we play everybody one more time,” Great Bend head coach Jason Tatkenhorst said. “We’re in a good spot. Of course, we need some help. Dodge City is definitely the favorite, but we’ve got to take care of business every game and get Dodge at home. That’s kind of our goal.
“Even though maybe our record’s not that great, we started off 1-5 and I considered ourselves 5-3 … 3-1 in the WAC.
GBHS senior forward Cassidy Tutak scored a career-high 16 points, and senior guard Jennifer Allende made three critical steals during a nine-second stretch in the late going to pull the Lady Panthers from the brink.
Junior standout Justice Norah scored a game-high 19 points for Liberal (8-6, 1-3). But inside the final two minutes, with the score tied at 48, Allende made three steals during a nine-second stretch — from the 1:41 mark until 1:32 remained — and the Lady Panthers turned two of those steals into four points to get over the hump.
“Jennifer did a great job guarding (Norah) and a lot of girls had a chance guarding her,” Tatkenhorst said. “Our objective was to contain (Norah) and actually, Jennifer probably went over and beyond and stole the ball several times. That’s exciting to see.”
In a tight, fast-paced game throughout, Great Bend trailed 47-44 with 4:26 remaining, but tied the game at 48 after Liz Kutina scored in the lane at the 3:52 mark and Kalie LeShore hit a driving layup with 2:55 left.
That’s when Allende left her imprint. She stole the ball from Norah, resulting in a LeShore layup with 1:41 left and 50-48 lead. Allende made a second steal, although Liberal got the ball back out of bounds.
But Allende stole the inbounds pass and fed the ball to LeShore, who was fouled at the 1:32 mark. LeShore converted both free throws for a 52-48 GBHS edge.
Norah drove in for a layup on the other end with 57.6 seconds left to make it a 52-50 ballgame, but it was Liberal’s final points as the Lady Panthers’ Lexie Brack and Tutak each converted two free throws during the final 10.3 seconds to salt away the win.
LeShore and Brack each finished with 12 points, making it the first time all season GBHS has had three players in double figures in a game. LeShore scored 10 of her 12 points after halftime, including six points in the final period.
Norah scored 13 of her 19 points in the second half. She scored only three points in the final period, where Great Bend unleashed its 14-6 spurt.
Great Bend converted 6 of 7 free throws in the final eight minutes, but finished just 15 for 27 from the line
Tutak and Brack each scored 10 first-half points to lead the Lady Panthers to a 29-26 halftime lead.
After Norah’s basket gave Liberal a 24-22 lead with just under four minutes left in the second quarter, Brack scored five straight points on a basket from the wing and a 3-pointer for a 27-24 lead at the 3:05 mark.
Kutina scored inside for GBHS to make it 29-24 before Marisol Regalado scored her last of eight second-quarter points in the final seconds of the half to make it a three-point lead at intermission.
Tutak had a hot hand early for the Lady Panthers, who missed 16 of their first 23 shots from the floor in a fast-paced opening quarter. Tutak scored seven of Great Bend’s first 10 points.
“My shot has been really off lately,” Tutak said. “We wanted to be the team that was 3-1 and we know that if were going to be successful (in WAC play), we had to come out and get this big win.
“It was a really important game for us.”