BELLS — When the Panthers football team put together the best season in school history and made it to the third round of the playoffs, it meant that the start of basketball season kept getting delayed.
Out of the 18 players in the hoops program, 16 of them were still on the gridiron instead of the court longer than normal. But for first-year head coach Troy Willis, he wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“We saw the success coming from hard work. That football run couldn’t have been better for us,” he said. “I would have taken another two weeks of football because of what it’s done. It was perfect — we learned to win because of it.”
Now a program which couldn’t reach double digits in victories last season keeps piling them up and got its latest in the District 10-3A opener with a 38-35 win over Howe.
“Wins and losses, I didn’t know what I had in mind but the energy and effort was going to translate into the win column,” Willis said. “All the credit goes to how these kids are buying in from Day 1.”
Tanner Carter scored 18 points, Cade Doggett added nine points and Bo Baker finished with seven points for Bells (11-5, 1-0), which plays at Leonard on Tuesday.
Caiden Harmon scored 15 points, Austin Haley added seven points and Luis Lopez chipped in six points for Howe (6-11, 0-1), which hosts Van Alstyne on Tuesday.
After producing just two points in the third quarter — a stretch that was only two seconds from being scoreless — the Panthers had their best output of the night in the fourth to pull out the victory.
“All year our kids have fought the whole game. The guts and determination have always been there and we were going to find a way,” Willis said. “They knew Howe wanted to win as much was we did.”
Howe’s final lead came on a three-point play by Harmon with 3:30 remaining to put the Bulldogs up 32-30. Carter and Doggett made consecutive layups as Bells went ahead for good with 2:29 left.
Baker came up with a strip on Howe’s ensuing possession to get the Panthers the ball back. But Bells turned it over on an inbounds pass with 38 seconds to go. Howe’s shot to tie the game was short and Carter, who missed all of last season with a torn Achilles, hit both free throws for a four-point lead with 13 seconds to go.
Haley connected on a deep three from the top of the key with five seconds left to pull the Bulldogs within one before Carter again made both attempts from the line moments later.
“It’s one of the things we’ve emphasized all week because we haven’t been good on free throws,” Willis said.
Howe was unable to get off a tying three in time to force overtime.
The Panthers were down 27-23 going to the fourth quarter and it was a deficit which could have been much worse. The only points in the third by Bells came when Baker stole an inbounds pass under Howe’s basket with 1.9 seconds to go in the stanza and scored at the buzzer. The Bulldogs’ struggle to score was almost as bad. Haley immediately opened the second half with a three to put Howe ahead but the Bulldogs then went nearly six minutes without a point until Ethan Lopez’s three-point play with 1:50 left.
Haley added a free throw for Howe’s seventh and final point of the quarter and the Bulldogs would lament the opportunity to build a bigger lead heading to the final eight minutes.
Bells took a 21-20 half-time advantage after Carter made a pair of free throws with 1:37 to go before the break. Luis Lopez drilled a three-pointer right before that to give the Bulldogs a slim lead they couldn’t hold. There were five lead changes in the quarter as neither side was up by more than four points.
The game was tied at 12 after the first quarter. Howe picked up a quick 6-3 advantage before Bells jumped in front at 7-6 on a Carter bucket. Ben Burleson had a putback and Carter followed with a three-point play before Harmon’s layin with just over a minute to go in the frame tied the score.