As hot as the Plano East boys basketball team began Friday’s District 9-6A opener, Allen’s finish was just as explosive.
The Eagles brushed off another slow start and weathered a 14-point deficit that swelled into a 17-point victory by game’s end in a 67-50 win over the Panthers and a productive start to the conference schedule.
“Late in the game, we finally got some stops,” said Joe McCullough, Allen head coach. “Earlier on, we would get stops in spurts but didn’t consistently get them and couldn’t ever build a lead. In the fourth quarter, we strung some stuff together and forced them to start taking tougher shots and made them press a little offensively.”
The Eagles outscored the Panthers, 17-5, in the fourth quarter, building off a third quarter that saw Allen muster the beginning of an 18-4 run that swung momentum in the road team’s favor for good. Seniors Thailand Elder and Bryce Kennedy were at the forefront of the surge, combining for 23 of the Eagles’ 33 points in the second half to overtake a game effort from the Panthers.
“I feel like we’re close to being a really good team,” said Matt Wester, East head coach. “The fact that we can play and compete with a team like this, where it was anybody’s game going into the fourth quarter, I was happy with my team for a lot of the game, and I think we can play like that then we can be a playoff team.”
Wester saw plenty to be encouraged in over the first three quarters after East blitzed Allen for a 20-6 lead late in the first quarter. Deploying a zone defense that produced some early misses from long range from the Eagles, the Panthers translated those stops into high-percentage transition offense from seniors Malik Russell, Latrell Goodwin and Jaden Clark.
“We just didn’t give them second shots. They had a big lineup in there and we did a better job of blocking out, plus we were very aggressive in transition with the ball,” Wester said. “I think they shored up some stuff and got it to where they started making shots and got some momentum.”
That included a trio of unanswered 3-pointers to close out the first quarter, including a half-court make at the buzzer from junior Manny Obaseki, to trim East’s lead to 20-15. The Eagles stayed hungry from beyond the arc against the Panthers’ zone defense, needing just three minutes of game time to erase the early deficit — eventually seizing the lead with 5:00 left in the second quarter on a short jumper by Elder.
There were plenty more to come, as Elder buried a game-best 28 points, including five 3-pointers on an afternoon where Allen tallied 10 makes from deep.
“Thai’s our shooter and if teams zone us then he’ll get shots,” McCullough said. “With him, he’s such a perfectionist and wants every one to go in, so sometimes if he misses a few early then it can get on his mind, but I was proud of him for staying with it. We believe in him and we believe in all our guys. They’re going to keep shooting and moving on to the next one.”
Kennedy added 13 and junior Ian Motta chipped in 11 as Allen found its groove opposite the East zone, yet still couldn’t get any separation until the fourth quarter. The Panthers stayed afloat thanks to some sharp shooting of their own, with Russell converting from deep five times as well on his way to 19 points.
“[Russell] has been doing a good job for a while and is close to being our leading scorer,” Wester said. “That comes from him being aggressive off the dribble and he’s our highest-percentage 3-point shooter so far. I admit I didn’t really expect that from my point guard.”
Meanwhile, Allen hopes to remedy a recent string of slow starts, with Friday marking the third consecutive game that the Eagles have been outscored in the first quarter.
“Obviously, I wish I knew because we’d have already fixed it,” McCullough said. “We’re going to address our preparation and find where we can be better, whether it’s focus or just getting going in warm-ups and having a prosper mindset. We can’t have these slow starts in district. It’s nice that we have a mentally tough team that can overcome it, but you don’t want to rely on that.”
The Eagles get a chance to improve on that area at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday when they travel to Jesuit. That same time and night, East continues district play with a home tilt against rival Plano Senior.