GUNTER — The Whitesboro Bearcats knew what they were getting themselves into. In rising to the top of the district standings, they have faced everybody’s best shot — none closer than the overtime victory against Pottsboro they had played just days before.
Now they had another opponent, the Gunter Tigers, close enough in their rearview mirror that they wanted to keep their foot on the gas.
“When we come over here the games are usually close,” Whitesboro head coach Toby Sluder said. “We’ve got a lot of varsity experience built up over the last few years. That and we know we’ve lost in the first round of the playoffs the past two years and we don’t want that to happen again.”
The Tigers had yet to lose at home this season and used some of that magic a week earlier with a buzz-beater over Ponder to help shape what is a tight playoff race behind Whitesboro.
But a game that was just an 11-point margin at half-time turned on a sharp-shooting performance by Montana Morgan as the Bearcats pulled away for a 70-50 victory in District 9-3A action on Friday night.
Morgan hit eight-of-13 three-pointers, four in the third quarter, to account for his 24 points while Tryston Gaines finished with 15 points and Joey Gullett chipped in 11 points for Whitesboro (19-7, 8-0), which clinched a playoff spot with the win.
“We were picked fourth in the district and I remind them of that all the time. I thought we would battle for a district championship,” Sluder said. “I think our non-district schedule helped us a lot. Bigger schools. Better competition.”
Kobe Hunter and Clay Lemons each had 13 points while Zander Turner scored 11 points for Gunter (16-8, 5-3), which fell out of a second-place tie with Pottsboro and is now just a half-game up on fourth-place Ponder. The Tigers have a crucial game at fifth-place Pilot Point, which is two games back, on Tuesday night in a race that could come down to the final night.
“Every game is important,” Gunter head coach Lonnie Scott said. “We’ve got to take care of business.”
Morgan came out firing in the third quarter and Gunter was unable to answer. He hit four three-pointers, mostly from very long range on the right wing, and Gaines also connected from long-distance as the Bearcats opened the second half on a 20-4 run.
“When (Morgan) is hot, (Morgan) is hot,” Sluder said. “He prefers to be back deeper. When he’s near the line he tends to miss long.”
Cade Acker converted a three-point play as the lead hit 27.
But the Tigers were able to put a little scare into Whitesboro. Hunter led a charge in the fourth quarter and with 4:06 remaining Lemons hit a three-point that trimmed the margin to 16. Gunter got a stop but missed a three on the ensuing possession and the Tigers were never able to get closer.
“They’re going to give me everything they’ve got,” Scott said. “They do the things that I tell them to do. Sometimes it’s good enough for us to win and sometimes it’s not.”
Whitesboro finished with 12 three-pointers and has won 12 of its last 14 games.
“It can go away as quickly as you have it,” Sluder said. “Against Pilot Point last week we only made one.”
Gunter was able to play the Bearcats to a stalemate in the second quarter to keep from falling being any further and go into the locker room down just 11 at 33-22.
The Tigers managed to spread out the production and Whitesboro made just four shots in the frame but three of them were three-pointers, two by Morgan and another from Logan Parker, to avoid having its lead cut into any more.
“We were always playing from behind. For us to stay with them, shots were going to have to fall for us and they didn’t,” Scott said. “We had to take our time and keep the pace slower.”
Gaines and Gullett got Whitesboro off to a fast start. The Bearcats held a 20-10 lead after the first quarter with the frontcourt duo producing all but three of those points. The other shot was a three-pointer from Morgan.
Turner had a strong quarter for Gunter with seven points but the Tigers managed only a basket from Lemons and a free throw by Hunter in facing the early double-digit deficit.