To say the Class 4A top-ranked Harrah Lady Panthers are on a mighty roll might be a substantial understatement.
Harrah, the defending Class 4A state champion and off to a 7-0 start this season, is set to face the 2A 14th-ranked Latta Lady Panthers at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 28, in the first round of the Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic at East Central University’s Kerr Activities Center.
Though the Lady Panthers lost three starters off last season’s state title squad, they haven’t seemed to miss a beat. After knocking off Class 6A 16th-ranked Shawnee in overtime to open the 2017-18 season, Harrah has practically thrashed its remaining opponents, with the closest in that span being 3A 13th-ranked Mount St. Mary, 58-45.
“We’ve had a pretty good start, and we’ve got a pretty good nucleus back,” said Harrah head coach Jeff Mahoney. “Shawnee has a really solid squad, and we found a way to win on the road. We also beat (Class 6A) No. 1 Choctaw in the finals of our own tournament (49-33). They gave us our only loss last year.”
The Lady Panthers’ two senior returning starters are 6-foot, 1-inch post player Ali Brzowzski and 5-8 guard Erika Ankney. Brzowzski is following her sister and former Harrah standout Gracie to Benedictine College in Kansas next season, while Ankney is taking her talents to NCAA Division I Oral Roberts University.
Ankney is averaging 18.5 points and 5.0 rebounds, while Brzowzski is at 10.1 and 6.0.
Two other Lady Panthers – sophomore Katie King and Kiara Lovings – weren’t technically starters for the team last season, but one could consider them to have occupied those roles. Lovings moved in from Jones, where she started last season.
“Katie has played the summer circuit…the AAU stuff. She doesn’t play like a sophomore. As a freshman, she didn’t play like a freshman,” Mahoney said. “Kiara has fit in well with a different role with us. The kids have blended well with her. She had a 24-point night and a couple of 13’s.”
Lovings is averaging 13.8 points and 4.2 boards, and King sports 9.6 scoring and 4.2 rebounding averages.
Mahoney said defense has been the catalyst for Harrah’s quick start.
“Defensively, we’ve been pretty solid. We scrimmaged some top 6A clubs to get ready for the season. Defense … that’s where it all starts anyway,” he said.
Latta brings a 4-3 record into the Mid-America Classic, but all three of those losses were to quality, ranked teams, including 2A top-ranked Dale to open the season. The other losses came to Vanoss and Byng. The Lady Panthers edged Class A 13th-ranked Stonewall, 36-34, in their previous game.
“We’ve been pretty solid defensively, but we’ve been struggling to score offensively,” said Latta head coach Bruce Plunk. “We’ve got to get three scorers in double figures on a consistent basis, and we haven’t done that.”
Emma Epperly and Kendra Hisaw are the only Lady Panthers to hover around the double-digit scoring average plateau so far this season.
“We know we’ve got a big challenge. They are definitely a formidable foe,” Plunk said. “We will try to improve a little as a team. We’re ready for the challenge, and we’ll have to play really well to come out on top.”
As for the experience of the Mid-America Classic, Mahoney is well aware of the opportunity.
“My daughter played in it in 2005. This is really a prestigious event for girls basketball. They have a way of making the kids feel special. I plan to explain to the girls what Bertha Teague was all about, and I want my team to be able to make a really good representation of girls basketball.”
The Mid-America Classic is sponsored by Vision Bank.