BELLS — With every shot the Lady Panthers put up, there was optimism. At some point Bells was going to hit one of them. Even after the first five, then 10, missed their mark, the feeling stayed the same — the next one was going in.

And while the Lady Panthers sank just one of their first 18 shots and two of eight free throws, their ability to harass Howe on the other end of the court provided enough time for them to get on track.

The defense never left Bells and came up biggest in the fourth quarter as the Lady Panthers defeated the Lady Bulldogs, 49-46, in District 10-3A action.

“Our girls are a seasoned group. They believe they’re never out of a game,” Bells head coach Chris Arledge said. “We were flying around and rebounding, kept chipping away, kept chipping away at it.”

Haley Arledge scored 16 points, Cheznie Hale added 10 points and Gabby Smith chipped in seven points for Bells (17-5, 2-0), which plays at Leonard on Tuesday with the winner gaining sole possession of first place.

“We’ll look at the standings when we get closer and when we need to but we are focused on ourselves,” Arledge said.

Sierra Copeland had 19 points and 15 rebounds, Ally Harvey finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds and Cassidy Anderson chipped in seven points for Howe (16-5, 2-1), which hosts Van Alstyne on Tuesday. The Lady Bulldogs were short-handed as Jenna Honore missed the game due to family reasons and Katie Grogan was sidelined with a foot injury.

There were just two Lady Bulldogs available on the bench and that number shrunk to one when Copeland fouled out with a minute left.

Playing without Honore, who was the MVP at the Era Tournament over the Christmas break, was a huge factor in dealing with Bells’ trapping defense.

“She’s a big part of their team and helps make them go,” Arledge said.

What makes Bells go is its ability to disrupt opponents when trying to run their offense. The Lady Panthers forced three five-second violations and plenty of turnovers as Howe was bringing the ball up the court. Several of those led to easy baskets and the biggest effect came in the final eight minutes, when the Lady Bulldogs made just one shot and finished with five points as Bells rallied for the win.

“It looks helter-skelter but there is a method to the madness,” Arledge said. “It’s not easy but we believe our defense is our offense.”

Harvey opened the fourth quarter with a basket that turned out to be the only one by the Lady Bulldogs in the fourth quarter.

Arledge hit a three-pointer and Smith made a pair of free throws to make it a one-possession game by the middle of the period. Copeland hit a free throw and Howe was ahead, 44-41, with 3:43 to go.

It was all tied up on Arledge’s three from the right wing with just under three minutes left and Trinity Williams put the Lady Bulldogs back in front with two free throw 30 seconds later.

Neither team made a shot in the final three minutes but Hale hit two free throws with 1:07 left to give Bells the lead for good. The Lady Panthers then re-gained possession on a jump ball with 46 seconds to go but couldn’t add to its lead at the free-throw line. Howe’s shot to re-take the lead was rebounded by Mia Moore, who nailed both free throws with 16 seconds left for her only points of the game.

Howe’s final chance at forcing overtime was off the mark and Bells survived.

“Every time we’ve played them the last three years, it’s been a war, a bloodbath,” Arledge said. “We knew what we were in for.”

Howe jumped ahead a little more than a minute into the third quarter and stayed in front for the rest of the frame. Harvey scored eight points in the quarter while Copeland added seven of her own, the last pair on a putback with 28 seconds to go for a 41-36 lead.

Landry Hicks made a three-pointer with 4:55 showing in the third as Bells trimmed the margin to a point but the Lady Bulldogs responded to widen the gap.

Bells’ rough start carried over into the second quarter as the Lady Panthers were 1-of-18 from the field before Arledge’s steal and layin pulled the home team within 14-7. The Lady Bulldogs were up 19-10 with 3:28 remaining in the half but managed just a free throw by Harvey the rest of the quarter.

That allowed Bells to take a 21-20 lead into the break, thanks to a three-point play from Arledge with five seconds left. Hale started the 11-1 run with a basket and a three-pointer and Smith chipped in three points to completely erase the deficit caused by the early shooting woes. Both teams struggled at the line — Bells was 6-of-19 on free throws at the intermission while the Lady Bulldogs made 7-of-17 attempts.

Howe missed its chance to blow the game open in the first quarter. Bells went the first five minutes without scoring, netting a free throw by Hale with 3:04 left in the frame, but the Lady Bulldogs only held an 8-0 advantage. Copeland had six points in the quarter and Landrey Sanders made a three-pointer as Howe led 12-4 after the initial eight minutes.

Bells was just 1-for-14 in the frame on a putback by Arledge with 2:24 on the clock, and 2-of-8 on free throws.

“They forced us out of our rhythm offensively,” Arledge said. “We allowed it to snowball.”