VAN ALSTYNE — It can be hard to win a district championship. It’s even harder to get through that portion of the schedule undefeated.
But as the Panthers opened the second half of 10-3A play with a 61-31 victory against Howe, it’s not hard to see how Van Alstyne might pull that off. In getting to this point, their lowest district output is what they put up against the Bulldogs and that came after producing 58 points and a 32-point lead through three quarters.
In the first go-around 10-3A, Van Alstyne’s closest game was 17 points. But the Panthers won’t overlook any of the five opponents left.
“We’ve never talked about that. We talk about getting better every day,” Van Alstyne head coach Russell Best said. “We can control that. The only time we’ll talk about 12-0 is if we’re 11-0.”
The Panthers moved a step closer in beating the Bulldogs. Samuel Tormos scored 26 points, J.J. Boling added 15 points and Blake Skipworth chipped in nine points for Van Alstyne (21-6, 7-0), which can clinch a playoff spot with a victory at Leonard on Tuesday night.
The Panthers started the season with three straight losses and in the 24 games since have been beaten only three times. When Van Alstyne had the district bye before facing Howe, it took on a ranked 4A Krum squad and earned a last-second victory.
“We always try to schedule good competition in non-district,” Best said. “We got beat up by some people, had some close games with some people. I think it was good for us.”
Ayden Norton scored 11 points and Austin Haley added 10 points for Howe (7-17, 1-7), which has the district bye on Tuesday before hosting Leonard on Friday.
The Bulldogs managed just four points in the first quarter, five in the fourth and never produced more than 12 in a frame.
“We try to get after it defensively, let that lead to offense,” Best said.
Howe finished with 10 points in the third — Haley scored six while Cameron Lankford and Ethan Lopez had the other baskets for the Bulldogs.
In that same span, Van Alstyne put up 24 points with Tormos doubling up his first-half output to get to 26 and Boling chipped in his final seven points before they were done for the night after the Panthers took a 58-26 lead to the fourth quarter.
Nathan Henley hit a three-pointer for the only VA scoring in the final eight minutes, which were mostly spent trying to get George Perperidis a basket on the night he turned 18. He had to settle on the Van Alstyne student section singing “Happy Birthday” at the final buzzer.
Haley and Norton did most of Howe’s scoring in the second quarter but the Panthers had more than enough firepower to match. Tormos scored 13 points through the first two quarters and Boling went into the break with eight but it was Skipworth who led the charge right before halftime with all nine of his points in the stanza.
He converted a three-point play early and then made a pair of left-corner threes in the final two minutes as the Panthers were on the way to a 34-16 half-time lead.
Skipworth turned out to be the third-leading scorer in this one and has filled that role the most behind Tormos and Boling but others, such as Cam Montgomery, Henley and Drelin Davis, have done so at times.
“It’s kinda been like that all year long. A lot of guys in the rotation have taken turns adding to the scoring,” Best said. “It depends on how teams try to take away Samuel and J.J.”
Tormos got Van Alstyne off to the quick start with a pair of buckets and then Norton scored for Howe before neither team did anything for more than four minutes. Then the Panthers were hot for the final stretch of the first quarter on the way to a 15-4 lead by the end of the frame. Boling and Tormos hit consecutive threes and then Boling made all the free throws after being fouled on a shot from behind the arc.
Norton’s floater down the lane ended the 9-0 run but the damage was done.
“It was a slow pace. We didn’t have many possessions,” Best said. “We did miss a few shots we had. At that point keep playing, get a stop and something good will happen. You never know when the pressure’s going to burst and when it did we took advantage.”