ALLEN — It was the type of game you expected between the two best teams in Texoma, champions of adjoining districts battling with a trip to the region tournament on the line.
A two-point margin after the first quarter. A tie at half-time. A four-point spread after three quarters. All tied up in the middle of the fourth.
Spurred on by two of the best student sections around, the Whitesboro Bearcats and the Van Alstyne Panthers played a game that lived up to the local billing.
Van Alstyne has had its share of recent success, including a trip to state four years ago. Whitesboro’s success has been more modest, with eight playoff appearances in the past 11 seasons but only once prior to this year did it advance past the second round.
With a suffocating defensive effort in the final eight minutes and 23 points and 10 rebounds from Tryston Gaines, the Bearcats wiped away a couple generations worth of frustration with a 66-59 win over the Panthers in a Class 3A Region II quarterfinal contest.
“I thought it was going to be a close one. I was hoping it would be,” Whitesboro head coach Toby Sluder said, referring to a 12-point loss to the Panthers in the Allen Tournament over the Christmas break. “Every possession was going to count. To get to the region tournament, you’ve got to beat some really good teams and that was a really, really good team.”
Whitesboro (25-9) advances to the region semifinals and will face Troup (29-9) at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Prosper for a spot in Saturday’s region final, which is at 1 p.m. at Prosper.
It is believed the Bearcats are in the region semis for the first time since 1965, when they were state semifinalists. The drought extends to at least 1990, and that 30-year gap would certainly be long enough.
Andrew Fletcher had 11 points and eight rebounds, Montana Morgan scored nine points and Carson Hickman chipped in eight points for Whitesboro, which was down six early in the fourth before holding the Panthers to just six points in the fourth quarter.
“We knew we had to lock up on defense because they have good shooters,” Gaines said. “We were both two great teams. We came up with a really good game plan.”
Samuel Tormos had 18 points and 11 rebounds, J.J. Boling scored 11 points, Cam Montgomery chipped in 10 points and Blake Skipworth added nine points for Van Alstyne (28-7), which was trying to reach the region tourney for the first time since 2016.
But the Panthers had a long scoreless drought which allowed Whitesboro to rally for the win. During a six-possession stretch the Panthers had five turnovers and Tormos, VA’s leading scorer, had just four points in the second half and didn’t score in the final 14 minutes.
“We’ve been really preaching defense,” Sluder said. “Our defense was much better in the second half. We got some stops and some turnovers at crucial times.”
Boling’s drive to open the fourth were the only points by Van Alstyne for the next 6:18. Gaines notched the next four points and Whitesboro was down just two before Cade Acker, who scored all five of his points in the fourth, tied the game at 55 with 4:25 remaining.
Fletcher put the Bearcats ahead to stay on a steal and layin with 2:57 left and while Van Alstyne made it a one-possession game twice after that, the last with 42 seconds left, it never had the ball with a chance to tie.
“We game planned to slow down their transition because that’s how they like to score,” Fletcher said. “We knew defense was going to win this game for us.”
Skipworth helped Van Alstyne gain control in the latter half of the third quarter. Whitesboro had held the lead for much of the stanza after Hickman’s three to open the half but the largest margin the Bearcats built was just four points. Skipworth put VA ahead on a three-pointer in the middle of the quarter and after Boling’s floater in the lane, he connected again from deep.
Gaines converted a three-point play to stem the momentum until Skipworth’s third three on the ensuing possession put the Panthers back up by five. VA’s lead got to six before Gaines trimmed it to 53-49 heading to the fourth.
Whitesboro’s Torran Naglestad sent the teams to the locker room tied at 32 when he made a pair of free throws with 0.9 seconds to go in the first half. The Bearcats were up early in the second quarter and ahead by four on Morgan’s three-pointer with 5:05 left in the frame. But Boling followed with a three-point play and David Terrill tied the score on a free throw.
The Bearcats never led the rest of the half, matching Van Alstyne over the final three-plus minutes until the break.
Whitesboro held a 19-17 lead after the first quarter. Tormos, who had 10 points in the frame, gave the Panthers a 6-5 advantage with three layups before Fletcher’s three put the Bearcats in front. Neither team led by more than four points and Van Alstyne pulled even at 14 on a Montgomery free throw.
Hunter Case then scored his only points of the night on a layup and a three-pointer before the Panthers made three free throws in the final minute to get within two.