Tuesday night’s boys basketball matchup between Liberty and Freedom high schools was a physical contest between two teams with eyes on a long-awaited Bay Valley Athletic League title.
Two Falcons – Jelani Hardaway and Joe Mixon – needed bandages on their left temples for most of the game. After four emotional quarters and overtime, Freedom was left standing with a 62-59 victory.
“We played well at the end because we played through adversity,” Falcons head coach Drew Torres said. “(Liberty) made some tough shots there at the end, but it was fine. We had to stay composed and fight through it. We were in these situations last year, and last year our team wasn’t mentally tough enough to overcome it. This year, our guys just stepped up and made the plays at the end.”
Both teams had moments throughout the game when they felt the win was theirs. The Lions jumped out to a commanding lead in the first quarter, only to see it slip away before halftime.
Freedom (16-5, 4-1 BVAL), following a breakaway dunk by Hardaway, held a 44-30 lead early in the fourth quarter. Fewer than five minutes later, Liberty (16-5, 3-2 BVAL) tied the game at 45.
With 23.1 seconds remaining, the Falcons thought they’d dealt a knockout blow, as junior guard James O’Neal sunk two free throws to give his team a 51-47 lead. In response, Lions senior guard Juwon Blakely nailed a three-pointer from the corner, cutting the Freedom lead to one.
O’Neal, whom Torres said is the Falcons’ key fourth-quarter guy, was fouled with 9.1 seconds remaining, and made both free throws. As time expired, senior guard Dwayne Burns sunk a perimeter shot to send the game to overtime.
Once the extra period started, however, a riled-up Liberty squad kept playing like they were still trying to take the lead. The Lions led by three midway through overtime, thanks to a Burns layup, but couldn’t hold on in the waning seconds.
“We’ve shown that we can play with anybody, but we don’t want to just play with anybody, we want to beat them,” Heinz said. “I thought we executed really poorly once we had the lead in overtime. We played like we were down instead of playing like we were up.”
With Freedom leading in overtime by one with about 30 seconds remaining, Falcons senior guard Jehiah Gunnaro made a two-pointer to give his team a three-point advantage it didn’t relinquish.
“I knew it was going to be a good game, so I didn’t rush it,” O’Neal said.
O’Neal led the Falcons with 18 points; sophomore forward Elliot Smith contributed 12 and Hardaway netted 11. Junior guard Brandon White scored a game-best 19 for Liberty while Burns finished with 14.
The victory gave Freedom second place in the BVAL, trailing Deer Valley. The Wolverines handily defeated Pittsburg 86-64 on Tuesday to maintain a spotless 5-0 record in league play. The Falcons face Antioch on Friday and Pittsburg on Tuesday.
The final two games of the year – when Freedom hosts Deer Valley on Feb. 14 and travels to Liberty on Feb. 16 – could decide the league title.