Call it a play-in or playoff game, whatever you prefer. Liberty will celebrate its first boys basketball postseason win with aplomb.
The victory was made sweeter by a two-minute stretch Friday night where the game nearly collapsed on top of the Lions. Leading No. 17 Gilbert Mesquite 47-39 with more than five minutes a three-point play plus a Liberty technical foul caused a seven-point swing and brought the Wildcats to within one point in about 10 seconds of game time.
No. 16 Liberty (17-9) was reeling for a minutes, as another and-one by Mesquite junior guard Jaden Lee gave the visitors a 49-47 lead. Baskets by seniors Collin Addy and Cole Roether put the Lions back up, but freshman Xavier Dusell’s fourth three pointer tipped the advantage back to the Wildcats.
That was the visitors’ last basket. Roether sank two free throws and a trey with 1:50 left to start Liberty’s 11-point closing run.
“They regulate themselves,” Liberty Coach Mark Wood said. “As for our guys, I’m proud. I’m proud of how hard they have worked to get to this moment. They gave us our first playoff win, first region banner and our first tournament championship in Liberty history. They’re resilient, tough kids and great leaders.”
Roether’s pivotal three unfolded after Lee tried to steal a pass and left the Lions’ top scorer room to dribble into his shot from the top of the key.
A Wildcats turnover on the ensuing possession left the Lions with one task — make free throws.
“He went for the steal and he missed. I just dribbled up and pulled it. I didn’t shoot good all game but that one felt good,” Roether said.
The final six Liberty points came from the foul line, — two from Addy, two from Roether and one each from senior Dom Ciccaglione, sophomore Braxton Croteau.
Most of the final three quarters were controlled by the Lions, but every time Mesquite drifted back, the explosive Wildcats answered with a spurt.
“First and foremost, props to Coach Lemon and Mesquite. They were 3-21 last year and they’re in the playoffs and they gave us all we could handle. He’s done an amazing job. Those kids gave everything they had,” Coach Wood said.
Mesquite (15-12) led 13-12 after the first quarter and went up four on junior David Exline’s triple to start the second. The visitors only scored one more basket in the quarter and Liberty grabbed a 28-18 halftime advantage.
Only four Wildcats players scored all night and most of the burden fell to Dusell (19 points), Exline (15 points) and Lee (13 points, seven rebounds). When those three tired in the face of Liberty’s pressure defense and frequent substitutions in a nine-man rotation, the Lions took advantage.
“You saw that with a couple of their shots missing and a couple passes that sailed high. They were just tired. To their credit, they never went away,” Coach Wood said.
After scoring the first six points of the second half, Mesquite had another dry spell. The Liberty lead ballooned to 39-27 before Dusell completed a three-point play and hit a trey to end the quarter.
Following some back and forth, sophomore forward Ryan Pavia grabbed a key offensive rebound and fed sophomore guard Jacob Edahl for a three and a 47-39 lead.
“Our big were giving all out effort,” Roether said.
But Lee drove, scored and drew a foul on Pavia, who slammed the ball on the floor for a technical. Lee hit his free throw, junior Willie Cano hit both technical shots and Exline scored off the ensuing inbounds.
Now with the game hanging in the balance, Liberty’s big men provided sore grit. Roether (26 points), Ciccaglione (12 points) and Edahl (8 points) did the bulk of the scoring.
However, sophomore center Braxton Croteau grabbed a game-high nine rebounds and drew a crucial charge in the final four minutes. Addy tied the game on a putback and chased down Lee to block his three-point attempt from behind.
“Collin’s block at the end, and his attack, kick outs and free throws, everything he did at the end shows why he’s on the floor. It doesn’t always go in the stat book,” Coach Wood said. “The charge Braxton took was a game changer. Those things don’t always bring glory, but they bring wins.”
Maricopa’s upset of Deer Valley will knock the Lions up to the No. 15 seed for the first (really the second) round. While the team will not know until Sunday, Liberty is likely to avoid probable top seed Apollo and traveling to No. 2 Phoenix Arcadia instead on Wednesday.