West Valley Preps
Going into a state semifinal as a decided underdog against a team that knows your unique style better than anyone is difficult enough.
When said foe executes its game plan flawlessly and hits 60 percent of its shots — including 71 percent from beyond the three-point line — about all you can do is tip your cap.
That’s what Liberty Coach Mark Wood did Wednesday evening after Phoenix Sunnyslope shredded the Lions full-court pressure and half court traps for open threes and layups. The Vikings never trailed and cruised to a 69-38 victory in the 5A semifinal at Grand Canyon University Arena.
“They hit the shots and credit goes to them. Sometimes you’ve got to tip your hat to your opponent and that’s what we’re going to do,” Coach Wood said. “We got looks that we wanted. But once they had a lead, we’re playing catch up. They’re not going to rush. We couldn’t speed them up and we’re kind of at their mercy at that point.”
Two years ago Liberty adopted its style in earnest, borrowing from the Relentless Basketball Club based in the Northwest Valley. The Lions press full court when they can, trap in the half court even more, shoot threes with abandon and substitute like a hockey team every couple minutes.
The style started to pay dividends last season but Wood’s team truly wreaked havoc this year. No. 15 seed Liberty (21-8) won 18 of 19 games entering Wednesday, claiming its first region title and first three playoff wins — including a stunning upset of No. 2 Phoenix Arcadia a week ago.
But No. 3 Sunnyslope loomed in the bracket. And no team has a better handle on the Lions than the Vikings, now 4-0 against Liberty in the last two years with the margin of victory growing in each game.
“We’ve kind of learned what to do against them from playing them. But if you just see it on film and you’ve never played against it, it is a dangerous system. You’re not ready for the nonstop pressure full court,” Sunnyslope Coach Ray Portela said.
Playing like veterans despite starting five juniors, the Vikings alternated feeding Chris Orozco in the post with making the extra pass to an open shooter behind the arc.
Both approaches worked. Orozco finished 8 for 12 with 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks. Six Sunnyslope players hit at least one three-pointer and the team drained 10 of 14 attempts.
Reserve junior Andrew Greb was the deadliest, hitting all four of his treys and finishing with 16 points. Junior forward Kyle Fischer did a bit of everything as the fulcrum of the offense, posting 11 points, nine rebounds and seven assists.
“We preach to our guys to stay patient and stay disciplined. They do a great job of setting their tempo and getting teams rushing and shooting bad shots. We want to take our time and get the shots we want to get,” Coach Portela said.
Plus, Sunnyslope clamped down defensively. The Lions missed some open looks but shot 29 percent on the night. Junior forward Connor Ray led his team with 10 points.
When these players and coaches look back on the season, this game will not come up much. Instead, the Lions will remember the last months when an always-solid program played its way into the statewide spotlight.
“It was well deserved for them. The coaches were fortunate to be along for the ride. This was all them. Every last thing that they accomplished the year was player driven and player willed,” Coach Wood said. “It was extremely rewarding to see their hard work, togetherness and toughness paid off. This has been a blast. … We took this just about as long as we could and for that, I’m proud.”
A small senior class — forward Collin Addy and guards Dom Ciccaglione and Cole Roether — had an outsized impact on the culture of the program.
When the story of Liberty basketball is written, this group and this season may not be seen as the end of and era, but rather the end of the first phase.
“That’s exactly what our locker room was just about, that these three seniors leave — you can’t take anything with you from this life but you can leave a legacy that can outlive you. That’s what they did,” Coach Wood said. “It’s now up to us to take the baton. They cultivated a championship culture that we’ve been looking for.”