First-place Bells rallies past Howe for postseason berth
HOWE — For all but the final minute, every time the Panthers glanced at the scoreboard they saw themselves without the lead.
At times the deficit was manageable. In the final stages of the fourth quarter it look worrisome. And outside of 18 seconds in the third quarter when the game was tied, Bells was always trying to keep within striking distance and ultimately pull out a win to maintain its hold on first place.
Clutch shots by Tanner Carter and Cooper Smith down the stretch allowed the Panthers to complete the comeback with a 40-36 victory over the Howe Bulldogs and clinch a playoff spot in District 11-3A action.
It is the fifth time in six seasons that Bells is headed to the postseason.
Carter had 16 points, seven rebounds and three assists, Smith added 14 points and 11 rebounds and Blake Rolen totaled five points and eight rebounds for Bells (17-3, 10-2), which can earn at least a share of the district title with a win at Bonham on Tuesday.
“What we’re preached all year is to prove that last year wasn’t a fluke,” Bells head coach Troy Willis said. “They’ve been straightforward about their goals to go get it.”
Jake Fabacher scored 13 points, Austin Haley chipped in nine points, Jacob Campbell totaled eight points and Kolby Taylor grabbed nine rebounds for Howe (8-8, 6-6), which plays at Leonard on Tuesday.
The Bulldogs remain a game out of a playoff spot, sitting behind Blue Ridge and two games back of third-place Whitewright. One more loss and Blue Ridge win will eliminate Howe. But the Bulldogs have show great improvement under first-year head coach Jay Forsythe — they won just two district games last season and matched their win total from a year ago in 12 fewer games.
“Ton of credit to Coach Forsythe,” Willis said. “He’s turned that thing around fast.”
It took almost the whole game for Bells to turn around what looked like a loss. Rolen had a three-pointer to make it a one-possession game with 6:32 remaining but Fabacher scored on a drive and then made two free throws with just over three minutes left for a seven-point advantage.
The Panthers then turned to Carter, who converted a three-point play. Campbell missed the front end of a one-and-one and Carter converted both his free-throw attempts to put Bells down two with 1:51 remaining.
“The two years I’ve been here he’s lived in the gym,” Willis said. “He’s tried to add so much to his game.”
Campbell connected on a free throw before Smith shouldered the load for the Panthers. The sophomore scored underneath and then after Taylor missed both free throws, Smith had a putback with 1:19 to go and Bells led for the first time at 37-36.
“He’s maturing as a player,” Willis said. “He’s been big during this little stretch we’ve been on, averaging a double-double.”
Smith came up with a rebound on the ensuing Howe possession and went to the line. He made the first and missed the second but Howe knocked the ball out of bounds. Keaton High followed with two free throws for a two-possession game with 38 seconds left.
The Bulldogs missed their final two shots and Bells escaped with the win.
A tough scoring stretch by Bells to begin the third quarter allowed Howe to stay in front.
Free throws by Smith were the only two points from the Panthers in the first 4:15 of the second half. Howe didn’t fare much better, going scoreless until Fabacher’s foul-line jumper with 4:47 on the clock.
Haley followed with a three and the Bulldogs were up 23-17. The Panthers tied the game with the next six points but the stalemate didn’t last long as Cameron Lankford drilled a three — his only basket — to put Howe back in front and Campbell made three free throws for a 29-25 lead heading to the fourth.
Both teams also had their scoring struggles in the second quarter.
Smith made a three early but then Bells went scoreless for almost six minutes. Howe couldn't take advantage as the Bulldogs notched only a Taylor putback and two Fabacher free throws in the first seven-plus minutes of the quarter.
Carter banked home a three from the right wing before a flurry of action in the final minute. Taylor hit a free throw with 1.2 seconds on the clock to give Howe an 18-15 lead at the break.
Fabacher helped Howe get out to an 8-2 lead with five of those points, including a three-pointer to join Haley’s early basket from beyond the arc.
Bells managed just a layup by Carter in the first six minutes before High made a free throw.
Haley was fouled on a three and knocked down all the free throws for an 11-5 advantage with 18 seconds left in the frame but Carter scored in the closing seconds to trim the Panthers’ deficit to four.