Special to West Valley Preps
TUCSON – The Liberty boys basketball team made the 150-mile drive down to Tucson through cold and damp conditions, but left Sahuaro High School scorching hot.
15th-seeded Liberty downed No. 10 Sahuaro 57-48 in the 5A state tournament Elite Eight game to advance to the program’s first Final Four appearance.
The Lions, who extended their win streak to five games, will play No. 3 Sunnyslope in the 5A state semifinal on Wednesday at Grand Canyon University at 4:30 p.m.
“[This] Feels pretty good, we get this for the rest of our lives,” said senior guard Dom Ciccaglione. “When we look back on our playing career, we made history at Liberty, went to a Final Four, everything we’ve done at Liberty has truly been a blessing and we want to keep it going.”
The Lions (21-7) jumped out to an early 10-4 lead at the 3:45 mark in the first quarter, and extended the lead to 21-10 to end the quarter. Liberty knocked down five of its eight three-pointers in the first frame.
Sahuaro, who trailed by as many as 14 points in the game and never got closer than six after the first quarter, wasn’t able to overcome a poor shooting performance (14-of-45) combined with 18 turnovers Liberty’s defensive pressure forced.
“The first quarter Liberty played their basketball and we kind of got away from what we do, we weren’t ready in the first quarter,” said Sahuaro coach Jim Henry. “I was happy with the way we played, we made some mistakes, but that’s going to happen with a team that pressures you non-stop. We weren’t the aggressor and were kind of playing on our heels, and didn’t hit shots.”
Liberty, who has now pulled of two straight upset wins after beating No. 2 Arcadia in the first round of the state tournament, hosted Sunnyslope earlier in the season and lost to the Vikings 65-37 on Nov. 29.
“We feel like every game we get to play is a blessing and every game is house money,” Liberty coach Mark Woods said. “We’re going to play, we’re going to enjoy it, have fun and focus on playing 32 minutes of our best. To be honest, from the beginning of the year we expected to be here. We started off with some difficulties, some adversity, but these guys, they belong to each other, they own the program. They have persevered and they felt like we should have been here, we’re not surprised by it.”
Liberty senior guard Cole Roether recorded a game-high 19 points and Ciccaglione added six points, wreaked havoc on defense and controlled the pace of the game with his playmaking. The duo were two of the eight Lions who scored on the night.
Sahuaro junior guard Dylan Newell scored a team-high 14 points, 12 of which came in the fourth quarter, and senior guard Brendan Gary ended his high school basketball career with 12 points before fouling out.
“It’s maybe the most fun I’ve ever had coaching,” Coach Henry said. “To see how the seniors rallied the troops and really put on a show down the stretch. Its unfortunate it ends tonight, but I couldn’t be prouder of this team. I love those guys [four seniors], they were team-first from day one, always sacrificing, always making their teammates better. I’ve known them since they were 9 years old. To see them grow up from little kids in our gym into young men headed off to college has been one of the most rewarding coaching seasons I’ve had.”