LEVELLAND– A crowd always tends to leave a highly anticipated ballgame with a warm feeling when it plays out as expected.
Gruver and Panhandle delivered just that to their fans during the Region I-2A championship game on Saturday afternoon at the Texan Dome on the campus of South Plains College. Unlike the lopsided contests the two years prior, this battle lived up to the billing with the Lady Hounds edging the Ettes in the closing seconds for a thrilling 38-36 victory.
The No. 9-ranked Lady Hounds (29-5) run their playoff win streak to 12 straight and will give themselves a chance at a third UIL Class 2A state title since 2020, as well as defend their crown from last year when they play Hearne (32-8) from Region IV in a state semifinal at 10 a.m. on Friday at the Alamodome in San Antonio.
“This region is so tough,” said Gruver head coach Trent Lankford, who led Gruver to the Class 2A state championship last season. “I’m so proud of this team. We showed so much grit this weekend.”
This game came down to the final 30 seconds. Tied, 36-36, Gruver took the ball off the inbound and worked the offense around to senior guard Brenna Butler who fired a 3-pointer from the corner. Butler’s shot hit the front of the rim but fell right into the hands of teammate Allie Sparks who made the put back in the lane to give the Lady Hounds a 38-36 advantage with 16 seconds left. Panhandle drove the ball back down the floor and called a timeout with eight seconds left. After drawing up a play, the Ettes had one final chance, but a Leah Sherwood 3-ball attempt fell short as the Gruver celebration ensued.
“I wasn’t expecting the ball to bounce right to me but there it was,” said Sparks, who scored six points for the game. “It was just very exciting. It was hard to keep my cool, because it felt so good and there was still eight seconds. But when we won it felt amazing.”
Gruver had an excellent start going on an 8-0 run midway through the first quarter to claim an early 16-7 lead. The Lady Hounds took advantage off missed shots and kept the Ettes off the boards to maintain a 24-14 advantage into halftime. But in the second half Panhandle came alive. The Ettes chipped away in the third quarter, and by the 3:37 mark of the fourth had tied it up, 34-34, off a Grace Sims layup.
“I was proud of our team for fighting back,” Panhandle head coach Rob Schmucker said. “You could tell in the first quarter Gruver looked less nervous than we did. But we gave ourselves a chance. We just started making shots and rebounded in the second half.”
Throughout the Panhandle rally and momentum not on the Lady Hounds side, Gruver didn’t blink. Butler put the Lady Hounds back on top 36-34 with two minutes left, and despite a turnover that let Panhandle tie it up one more time, Gruver came away with the clutch moment in the end for the victory.
“I have told this team to never be afraid of the moment,” Lankford said. “Whether it is good or bad let’s just stay under control and handle it. This team has a gritty identity. That’s not always pretty but it’s toughness. We’ve had so many players just step up at different times.”
Butler, who will continue her playing career at Oklahoma State next fall, showed true toughness playing through a bloody nose the entire second half, but it didn’t stop her from showing her poise down the stretch.
“I always seem to get a bloody nose,” Butler said. “But this group of seniors are very close, and we pulled together, and we knew we could get back to state. We were solid when we needed to be.”
Hannon Lankford led Gruver with nine points with Butler scoring eight. Panhandle, which ended a fantastic year at 28-8, was led by Avery Cathey’s 11 points.
Gruver 16 24 32 38
Panhandle 7 14 25 36
G- Hannon Lankford 9, Brenna Butler 8. P- Avery Cathey 11, Grace Sims 6. Records: Gruver 29-5; Panhandle 28-8.