Once the South Effingham Mustangs basketball team got the first quarter out of the way, they played head-to-head with Liberty County.
But as competitive as the final three quarters were in a 70-43 loss Tuesday night at the LCHS gym, the damage was done in the first period. The Panthers outscored the Mustangs 24-5.
“We just aren’t ready for the speed of the game when it starts,” Mustangs coach Jason Keeler said. “But for three quarters, we played them to an eight-point game. We did a good job defensively after the first quarter. We held them in check for three quarters. I was proud of the guys.”
Every Mustang scored, and Zach Anderson led the way with eight points as the Panthers got their starters and top reserves plenty of playing time.
“It wasn’t as if we were scoring against their 12th, 13th, 14th or 15th guys,” Keeler said.
Liberty’s roster includes five seniors, led by guard Donrico Wigfall and forward Michael Manning. Their experience, and their athletic ability, is hard to duplicate in practice, Keeler said.
“We felt we were prepared. The kids said (the Panthers) didn’t do anything they hadn’t seen in practice,” he said.
“We’ve got to be able to come out and start the game with the same intensity we find in the second through fourth quarters. In that first quarter, we just had a lot of unforced errors.”
The win was the 13th in a row for the Panthers (15-2, 5-0 Region 3-AAA). Only two of those wins have been by less than 10 points, and one of those was over Class AAAAA Beach. The Mustangs slipped to 0-5 in the region.
“They’re a good team,” Keeler said of Liberty County. “But if we cut down on the unforced errors, maybe it’s a different game.”
The Mustangs begin the return trip through Region 3-AAA, facing their five foes for a second time, starting with Friday night’s game at Richmond Hill.
“I’m hoping the lesson we learned is that we’re capable of playing with and being competitive with those guys,” Keeler said. “We feel good about our chances the second time around. There’s no reason not to be optimistic.”