By Erik Walsh
Monitor Photo/Erik Walsh
Mabank sophomore Jordan Thomas (23) cuts to the basket. Thomas scored 19 second-half points and lead the Panthers to victory.
Monitor Sports Editor
FORNEY–Mabank fans turned out in droves at the Forney High School gym Feb. 24, helping the first-seed Panthers basketball team defeat the fourth-seed Rains Wildcats 62-56 in the bi-district round of the playoffs.
The Panthers had to deal with the difficult challenge of playing the majority of the game without senior big man Dalton Burleson. Burleson picked up two quick fouls within the first three minutes of the first quarter prompting Head Coach Tracey Carter to sit the 6-foot-7 senior and save him for the latter portions of the game.
At the time of Burleson’s removal he had scored Mabank’s lone basket. His exit ignited a fire in Rains, as they went on a 6-0 run and took a 6-2 lead. Mabank quenched it with a three-pointer by Cole Smith and pair of free throws by Mark Driskell. Rains led 11-7 after the first quarter.
The second quarter initially looked very bad for Mabank. The Wildcats nailed a pair of three-pointers to help themselves to a 10-point, 21-11 lead before Carter checked Burleson back into the game. Foul trouble continued to haunt Burleson as he picked up his third foul and exited the game again. Despite his departure, Mabank was able to build momentum.
The three-point shot put Mabank behind early in the quarter and even sharper three-point shooting by the Panthers brought them back in. Mabank went on a 13-4 run in the final three and a half minutes of the quarter, highlighted with a three-pointer by Smith and two by senior Elliot Jackson, including one at the buzzer to give Mabank its first lead, 26-25, since Burleson’s bucket to begin the game.
The Panthers third quarter was defined by the continued foul trouble of Burleson and sparkplug dominating play by sophomore Jordan Thomas. Burleson took his fourth foul just minutes into the quarter and was put back on the bench by Carter, waiting until the fourth quarter to play. Despite the setback, the Panthers found a way to build a 9-point lead in his absence. The way was quite simple: put the ball in Thomas’ hands.
After Rains took the lead, 30-26, Thomas caught on fire. Payton Lee netted two free throws to bring Mabank within two, then Thomas went on to score 14 of Mabank’s next 19 points. It began when he made a three-pointer to give Mabank the lead back, 31-30. Through the excellent third quarter, he scored six field goals and three free-throws to vault Mabank ahead 47-38.
Ever relenting, Rains closed in on the Panthers in the fourth quarter. Within three minutes the Wilcats had taken back the momentum and come within two points of the Panthers, 48-46. Burleson came back onto the floor only to see Rains tie the game up, 48-48. Not to be outdone, Burleson gave the Panthers the lead back by nailing two free throws. Two more perfect free throws by Lee extended Mabank’s lead, 52-48.
Burleson finally fouled out with just 2:18 to play after trying to block a Wildcat shot Shaquille O’Neal style. The big man’s massive arm sweep would have sent the ball flying clear out of play, but instead he made contact with the hand of the Wildcat shooter for a foul. Rains capitalized by hitting both free throws, then hitting a two-pointer to tie the game at 52 with under two minutes to play.
Ever the sparkplug, Burleson’s exit was Thomas’ cue ignite Mabank. On the Panthers next possession, Thomas nailed a three-pointer to give Mabank the lead again, 55-52. From this point on, the Panthers lead would not be relinquished, thanks mostly to their excellent foul shooting.
A three-point bucket prompted Rains to begin intentionally fouling Mabank to stop the clock. The fouls quickly piled up and put Mabnak on the free-throw line, where they succeeded on seven of ten shots to ice the game, 62-56.
The Panthers leaped from the bench onto the court at the final horn in celebration. The loss was an emotional one for Rains, with several seniors crying after losing such a hard-fought game against a high-seeded opponent.
Thomas led the way with 21 points, including two three-pointers and shot 3-3 from the free throw line. Smith scored 13 points, with three thee-pointers and 4-6 foul shooting. Lee was a rock from the foul line all night, making all eight of his shoots to finish the game with 12 points. Elliot Jackson added seven points, including two thee-pointers and Burleson added six points in his limited play time. Carter said the Mabank offense struggled to get going without Burleson.
“He is the focal point of our offense,” Carter said. “We are designed to give him touches in the lane and it was a struggle without him there. Our guys, Jordan Thomas particularly, stepped up. He got a hot hand for us and we needed it.”
Carter had high praise for the Rains Wildcats.
“They don’t play like a fourth place team. They won big games in the second half of district play and won a play-in game to get here. They are warriors and will continue to get better and better. They were a tough squad that played hard.”
Carter said that Mabank’s crucial free throw shooting all game and down the stretch is nothing new to the team.
“We’ve shot well on the line all year, so I wasn’t surprised. It was crucial tonight here in the playoffs as the points get tighter and tighter. I’m proud of our kids because we had a lot of adversity to overcome,” Carter concluded.