Fans and alumni of the Liberty High boys basketball team can rejoice. The Lions’ 27-year postseason losing streak is now a thing of the past.
Hosting its first playoff game since 1985, Liberty beat the visiting Amador Valley Dons 59-48 Tuesday night in the first round of the North Coast Section playoffs.
Amador Valley guard Nick Ruotolo scored 16 points and forward Tyler Lawrence contributed 13. The Liberty attack was far more balanced. Junior guard Brandon White scored 12, while senior guard Dwayne Burns and senior forward Darren Meeks notched 11 each.
“It just feels amazing,” Meeks said. “I never thought this would happen, being a senior and being here over the last couple of years.”
The Lions played the game at a higher speed than the Dons. While Liberty never trailed after the early minutes of the first quarter, the game was tied in the fourth quarter until a heavy Liberty press forced Amador Valley mistakes that led to turnovers and a string of Liberty free throws that put the game away.
The Lions now face the rival Falcons, who’ve beaten Liberty twice, 62-59 in overtime and 52-42. The NCS playoff clash will be played Friday at the Falcons’ home gym. Freedom, coming off of a bye, is the No. 3 seed in the playoffs.
“The last time we played them, we weren’t finishing our layups, and we have to do that,” White said. “If we can get out in the open floor, get some easy buckets and control the tempo on defense, we can beat them.”
Lions head coach Jon Heinz said the Liberty basketball program has changed rapidly following an extended slump. The Lions’ last playoff win came in 1985 against Miramonte, and their last playoff appearance was a 2004 one-and-done blowout loss to Newark Memorial. Heinz hopes this season begins a winning tradition on campus.
“The crowd here tonight was great,” Heinz said. “Our football team loses, our basketball team loses. I took over the program and I knew they were bad; I just didn’t realize how bad it was or why it was that bad. It’s a testament to these guys who want to come to Liberty. They’ve turned it around.”
Heritage 66, Berkeley 50
The first round’s premier blowout – and upset – came in the Heritage 66-50 win over Berkeley. Four Patriots scored in double digits: senior forward Wayne Engelstad netted 21, junior guard George Johnson 15, sophomore center Shon Briggs 14, and guard Pierre Carter 10.
“I’m just really proud of our kids,” head coach Pat Cruickshank said. “We played with great energy all game long and executed the game plan to near perfection. We defended the way we wanted to defend, got good looks and ran our shots. Everybody chipped in; it was a full team effort.”
Heritage led for nearly the whole game and by no fewer than eight points throughout the second half. Yellowjackets’ senior forward Langston Morris-Walker led all scorers with 23 while senior power forward Henry Cornelious posted 20 – but the rest of the Berkeley team did next to nothing offensively.
Heritage’s league record was subpar – 4-6 in BVAL play, losing both games to playoff teams Deer Valley and Freedom, and (including a preseason game) three against Liberty. The coach was pleased that his team’s playoff success erased those memories.
“We’d struggled a little bit finding ourselves,” Cruickshank said. “But we put the last few weeks behind us, realized we’re all 0-0. They just really had a great time playing tonight – had a lot of fun.”
No. 9 Heritage at No. 1 De La Salle, 8 p.m.
No. 7 San Leandro at No. 2 Deer Valley, 8 p.m.
No. 6 Liberty at No. 3 Freedom, 7 p.m.