AYER -- The Panthers knew they had their work cut out for them when Littleton came into town Friday night for a Mid-Wach D showdown. Ayer-Shirley trailed 29-28 at halftime, a moral victory against a powerful Tigers starting lineup, but Tigers' forward Chris Murray continued to put on a shooting clinic, dropping a game-high 32-points en route to downing Ayer-Shirley 69-49.
The Panthers were led in scoring by captains Tyler Gaetz, and Ryan Richard who both contributed 12-points in a losing effort.
Ayer-Shirley's implosion in the second half was due in large part to Littleton simply making big plays, according to Panthers head coach Justin Carlson.
"They just made more plays than us in the second half," said Carlson. "They came out with great intensity and did what they wanted to do, which is force turnovers and get easy transition points."
The Panthers started the first quarter reeling after a 9-2 opening run by the Tigers. Littleton's early spurt was highlighted with baskets by Murray and Sullivan. Carlson called a timeout with 5:57 remaining in the quarter to rally his team to make a run. The Panthers sounded off a 9-0 run late in the first quarter, highlighted by splashdown threes from junior guard Zak Walker and senior captain Ryan Goodman to take their first lead of the game with 1:20 left in the opening quarter. Ayer-Shirley would lead after the first quarter 16-14.
In the second quarter, it was more of the same.
Gaetz would put the Panthers back on top with a three-pointer from in front of the Ayer-Shirley student section to give Ayer-Shirley a 23-22 advantage with 4:30 remaining in the quarter. Both teams seemed to find their stroke in the second quarter, with the lead changing five times.
Coming off the pine, Anthony Burwell provided a spark offensively for the Panthers with a couple of key baskets down the final stretch of the first half. Burwell charged the lane late in the quarter, drew contact and went to the line for a chance at the three-point play. Burwell knocked down the freebie from the line and brought the Panthers to within one, 29-28.
What happened next in the second half was an absolute shooting clinic by Murray and Ryan Sullivan. Littleton began the final half on an 8-0 run highlighted with a three-point basket off the fingers of Danny Johnson and a pull-up 8-footer from Murray with 5:42 left in the quarter to make it 38-30.
Richard got a little over zealous on a block attempt, which sent Murray to the charity stripe for three, and Murray converted on all three attempts to extend the Tigers' lead to 11.
Richard tried desperately to get the Panthers back into the game in the second half with a couple of key blocks to set up scoring opportunities. Richard set up Gaetz for a three-pointer with 5:42 remaining in the third, which cut the Tigers' lead to 41-33. Littleton's lead continued to mount as the quarter waged on with the Tigers' up by as much as 17 after a Nick Fontenella jumper with 1:12 left in the third.
Sophomore forward Chris Patano knocked down a three-pointer at the buzzer from the top of the key to bring Ayer-Shirley within 12 going into the final quarter.
Littleton outscored the Panthers in the fourth quarter 16-8, and slashed any hopes Ayer-Shirley might have had at a late comeback.
"Tonight we got away from attacking the rim a little bit," said Carlson. "It was a physical game, and anytime we would have been able to get to the free-throw line, we would have been able to slow them down.
They went on long runs, and we couldn't stop it. We only scored eight points in the fourth quarter. That's key, because it takes us out of everything we wanted to do offensively."