Friday morning: The Ponder Lions score a 51-47 victory over Aransas Pass to advance to Saturday's Class 2A state championship game.
Ponder (31-7) will face the winner of the Tatum and Bushland semifinal game in the finals Saturday at 1:30 p.m.
PONDER — Against many teams, Ponder would have a decided advantage in terms of state championship experience when it tips off today for a chance to play in Saturday’s Class 2A state championship game.
After all, the Lions (30-7) are searching for their fifth title in their eighth state tournament appearance and have been one of the mainstays at Austin’s Frank Erwin Center over the years.
Even though Aransas Pass is looking for its first state championship, the Panthers (33-7) have plenty of state tournament pedigree under longtime head coach Glen Hayes.
The Panthers are making their seventh appearance in Austin — the fifth under Hayes — but they have yet to claim the top prize. Now Ponder stands between them and their most recent chance.
“They’ve been to Austin several times, and that’s important,” Ponder head coach Jude Stanley said. “They have a great program. Coach Hayes has built that program from the ground up. I’ve seen his teams play in Austin over the last 10 years several times.
“I would say they’re one of the teams in Austin that people are used to seeing. They haven’t won a state championship. I’d think they’re pretty fired up about having another shot to see what they can do.”
Stanley hopes it’s his squad and not Hayes’ that’s playing in Saturday’s final against the Tatum-Bushland winner. Ponder is making its first trip to Austin since 2010 — Stanley’s first year leading the Lions after former coach Doug Boxell’s successful tenure. That year, Ponder won its fourth title and third straight.
“With their tradition, you know they’re going to be prepared and come out to play every time,” Ponder senior post Clay Morgan said. “They won’t be unprepared and not know what we do. We know that. It’ll be a good test.”
In order to play on Saturday, Stanley said his team must take care of the ball against Aransas Pass’ ferocious defense, which uses full-court and half-court traps and presses almost exclusively to force a fast tempo. Basically, the Panthers will want to play at the other end of the spectrum from the controlled pace of Ponder.
“Knowing this team presses, it’s easier to get open shots if you take care of the ball and pass the ball well,” Ponder sophomore point guard Brady Anderson said. “We just can’t speed up to their tempo. We have to try to stay down, play our game and make good passes.”
Challenging Anderson on both ends of the floor will be Aransas Pass’ sophomore point guard Colin Hale, who is averaging just shy of 14 points per game. Anderson, who averages 11.2 points and 4.1 assists per game, will likely get Hale as a defensive assignment and will also be guarded by the Panthers’ best player.
“I don’t want to do too much and end up turning the ball over,” Anderson said. “Knowing I’m playing in Austin and having so many people watch, I can’t do too much and go one-on-three and turn the ball over. I have trust in my other guards to bring it [the ball] up, too.”
The Panthers’ leading scorer is guard Kiki Hill (14.5 points per game), but perhaps the most noticeable player on the floor for Aransas Pass will be Joel Gentry — all 6-feet-11 and 250 pounds of him.
“He’s a presence,” Ponder senior post Josh Peterson said. “That’s the best way to describe him. He’s going to be a good rebounder. We’ll have to keep him off the boards. I think he’ll be a presence in the lane as far as altering shots, but our guards will get around him, and as posts, we [Peterson and Morgan] will work off it. We’ll be fine.”
When all is said and done, the Lions hope to be hoisting their fifth state championship trophy on the floor at the Frank Erwin Center, where the Lions last played when the current senior class was in eighth grade.
Anderson, who was a fifth-grader when Ponder won in 2010, said he knows the ultimate goal, but the season has already been a pretty big success.
“We’re one of the top 4 teams in the state, and we’re getting to play in Austin,” Anderson said. “It’s pretty awesome.”
ADAM BOEDEKER can be reached at 940-566-6872 and via Twitter at @aboedeker.