Late collapse leaves Liberty basketball at a loss - East Valley Tribune: VarsityXtra

Late collapse leaves Liberty basketball at a loss

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Posted: Tuesday, February 15, 2011 12:02 am | Updated: 4:00 am, Sat Oct 8, 2011.

High school coaches spend most of careers teaching  - talking to their players through their journey to adulthood.

But after Tuesday's stunning 69-66 overtime loss to Tucson Palo Verde in the first round of the 4A-II playoffs, words were hard to come by for Liberty boys basketball coach Mark Wood.

"There are things sometimes that happen we don't have explanations for. I didn't know what to say," Wood said. "I'm pissed, I'm angry for them, but at the same time I realize that there's a bigger picture as to why we're together. We're going to be close forever. But I don't have the answers to give them. I just don't."

Liberty led by nine entering the final two minutes on their home court. But Palo Verde (17-12) came up with three three-point shots in the end game to spearhead its comeback.

Trailing by three with eight seconds left, the Titans called time out and set up a play for their leading scorer, senior forward Roland Jones. Jones caught the ball, dribbled toward the left corner, elevated over two Liberty defenders and released a three-pointer with a second left.

It swished through as the buzzer sounded, tying the game at 58.

"I'm a firm believer that you've got to put the ball in your star's hands and good things will happen," Palo Verde coach Chris Klassen said. "We ran him off a fake screen going one way and a double screen going back and he he hit a shot with a guy all over him. That was probably the greatest shot of his career."

Liberty (15-12) appeared to have to have the game in hand after some inspired play early in the fourth quarter. Until the Lions started the final period with a 13-4 run, the contest had been back and forth, with neither team leading by more than six points in the first three quarters.

The Lions took that six-point advantage early in the third quarter on a trey by junior forward Nathan Bannister. But the Titans quickly cut the lead to two and ended the quarter up 37-36.

While Liberty relied on its balanced attack and the confusion caused by its half-court traps and 2-3 zone defense, Palo Verde stayed in the game with offensive rebounding and the play of senior guard Kevin Huff, who scored 17 of his 20 points in the first three periods.

"That's probably the best game of his career. He stepped up a lot. We lost (point guard) Dorian Page, an irreplaceable, all-state, 18-points a game player and Kevin's really stepping up the second half of the season," Klassen said.

The Lions regained the lead early in the fourth quarter as junior guard Greg Salyer stole the ball and fed junior guard Marc Scaffidi for a layup. Salyer added his own layup, but Palo Verde hit two of four free throws to drawn within one.

Then Liberty began bombing away. Junior  guard Trevor Arndt drilled a three from the right corner. After a Palo Verde miss, Bannister grabbed the rebound and dribbled to the foul line with two Titans harassing him. He passed off to Arndt, who was standing in the same spot and whose shot was pure again.

Jones came back with a bucket, but Bannister hit a three from the top of the key to put Liberty up 49-41 with 4:05 remaining. On the night, Bannister paced the Lions with 19 points, 11 rebounds and three assists.

"I think our guys left it on the floor. I think they played their hearts out. They played together and they did everything they could do to win that game," Wood said. "Palo Verde just hit some crazy shots at the end and we missed our free throws. I don't know where we could have changed."

Huff made a free throw. Then Salyer pushed the advantage to a game-high 10 by canning a triple.

Jones and Liberty senior forward Branden Croteau traded baskets. Jones swished a three, but Bannister scored with 2:12 left to make it 56-47.

Jones, who scored 16 of his game high 21 points in the fourth quarter, wasn't done. He grabbed an offensive rebound, drew a foul and hit both free throws. Bannister missed the front end of a one-and-one, then Salyer did the same and Jones' three cut the lead to four with 34 seconds on the clock.

Bannister showed off his arm with a 3/4 court inbound pass that Croteau converted for a layup. However, senior forward T.J. Anderson kept Palo Verde alive with a three.

Croteau was fouled and missed his front end of the one-and-one. The Titans rebounded and set up the buzzer-beater.

"We missed the front end of three one-and-ones, of which all three guys are great shooters. Literally every day in practice, we end with shooting one-and-one free throws to win the game," Wood said. "I don't know how much better defense we could have played on the kid. For whatever reason, it wasn't meant to be our night. I tip my hat to Palo Verde for fighting and I tip my hat to my guys for fighting."

Palo Verde rode the wave of momentum early in overtime, with Jones putting back a missed shot and getting fouled. But he missed the free throw and suddenly the Titans froze up at the line.

Arndt made one of two at the charity stripe, but Huff stretched the Palo Verde advantage to three. Salyers banked in a three to tie the game.

Anderson and senior forward Josh Sparks traded hoops. Then Anderson gave the Titans the lead for good by converting on a three-point play.

Jones kept the door open by missing two foul shots and Bannister hit his two. Senior guard Shaq Davis made one free throw. Liberty turned it over on a bad pass and senior center Mike Balla went one-for-two at the line. Sparks got a good look, but his potential game-tying three rimmed out.

"That was a great game," Klassen said. "We couldn't hit a free throw to save our lives, but I'm glad we got the last one to go up three. They got a great look, too. I honestly though that one was going in. They have a great team."

Team has been the operative word for Liberty this season. The Lions started 10 kids at different points this year and never relied on one player on either end of the court.

With the exception of Bannister's standout performance, this was true again Tuesday. Six other Liberty players scored, and five of those kids put up between six and 10 points. Even in the locker room after the season ended, this group exhibited an unusual bond.

"I thought we were going to make a serious run. I don't know what we would change," Wood said. "Just to show you why these guys are special, the juniors are upset because the didn't give the seniors a trophy. The seniors are upset because their season's over and they love these guys so much."

Wood said he hopes the six rotation players who return next season - Bannister, Arndt, Salyer, Scaffidi, junior center jake Patterson and sophomore guard Brandon Beeneau - remember this feeling and use it as motivation for the next 12 months.

"That's what we talked about. I want them to get that burning desire going ... to think 'this is not going to happen to me again,'" Wood said. "That's maybe the silver lining."

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