COLUMBUS — One shot buried the Liberty Patriots twice during the regular season, but Greg Nossaman’s team was determined it would not let it happen again Saturday afternoon.
Walnut Ridge’s Roy Alexander hit a three-pointer with three seconds left in regulation to send the game to overtime, but Liberty made clutch plays, got a break or two and hit its free throws down the stretch to pull out a heart-pounding 58-55 victory over the Scots in the second of three Division I Central District championship games at the Ohio Expo Center Coliseum.
The win not only gives Liberty (21-2) its first district championship in school history, but also puts it in the Division I Region 3 semifinals at 7 p.m. Thursday against Pickerington Central (22-2), a 65-49 winner over Newark in the last game of the day.
But it was far from easy, especially against a Walnut Ridge (21-2) team averaging 69.6 points a game overall and 71.6 a game in the regular season.
“It’s just disappointing, though it was a hard-fought game,” Walnut Ridge coach Jason Bates said. “I told my guys going in it was going to be a fight no matter what, but at this point, good teams are left. We made some plays but didn’t make enough. We left some plays out on the floor, but I also think we showed what type of team we are and the heart we have.”
The Patriots used their defense to hold down the Scots, though Walnut Ridge did a solid job getting second and third chances. Walnut Ridge finished the game with 70 shots on the night while Liberty had just 34 shots from the floor, but couldn’t knock down many of those first and second tries.
“Our kids followed the game plan — keep the score low,” Nossaman said. “They were averaging 71 points a game, and we felt we had to keep the game in the 50s. We were right where we wanted at regulation. Our kids hung tough and gave us just a great team effort, and that’s a great tribute to what our kids have done all year.”
“All season, we’ve just been grinding out wins,” Liberty senior guard Jake Bischoff said. “It hasn’t been pretty very often, but I think this was a prime example of us just grinding one out. We try to get into offensive sets, but it seemed like there were 10 of them out there with the pressure they put on us. It just came down to us making plays and making pressure free throws down the stretch.”
Liberty had an early lead of seven points after one quarter and led by five with 1:28 left in regulation, but had a tough spell at the free throw line, going 2 of 6 from the stripe in the final 65 seconds.
Walnut Ridge battled back, getting an Alexander jumper and a layup from Rob Wheelwright to pull the Scots back within one, 44-43, and after Liberty’s troubles from the line, Alexander pulled up in front of his defender and buried a clutch three with 3.1 seconds left, sending the game into the extra period.
The shot could have deflated the Patriots, but Nossaman, Bischoff and others made certain the Patriots knew the game wasn’t over.
“Our two losses were like the end of regulation, and it kind of looked like the air was taken out of us after that shot,” Nossaman said. “We sat the kids down and said, ‘Look, we’ve got four more minutes. Let’s go play.’”
“Personally, when Alexander hit that three, they had all the momentum,” Bischoff said. “Being kind of a team leader, I wanted to settle the guys down, refocus, and make sure we knew the score was 0-0 again.”
Things didn’t start well in the extra period when Alexander threw down a dunk with 3:08 left in the overtime to give the Scots a two-point edge, but senior Alec Charbonneau tied the game again with two free throws.
Alexander again drained a triple, putting Walnut Ridge ahead, but a bucket from senior A.J. Motika and two Bischoff free throws put the Patriots up one, 52-51.
Walnut Ridge tried again with the three ball, but this time, Alexander’s shot bounced away. Motika grabbed the rebound and was fouled, then hit the first of his two shots, but an official stopped play just before the shot and the point was negated.
Motika then missed both attempts and the ball was knocked out of bounds off a Walnut Ridge player, but one official ruled it off a Liberty athlete. However, another official stepped in and overruled the first call, giving Liberty the ball underneath the bucket.
That turned out to be the biggest break Liberty could get, as Charbonneau slipped a screen and cut to the bucket. Senior Alex Radkiewicz found him wide open underneath and shot him the pass before Charbonneau sank an easy layup, giving Liberty a 54-51 lead.
“They do a great job of denying the ball and getting into the passing lanes,” Nossaman said. “We run a little double screen where we like to curl, and I told them if they hedge too much, just slip it. That’s a read by a player. Alec did a great job reading it and Alex did a great job to find the open man.”
Another Alexander jumper did not fall on Walnut Ridge’s next trip, and Bischoff hit two free throws to put the Patriots up five again with 17.2 seconds to go. Alexander made a running layup on the Scots’ next trip, but Bischoff was fouled again, went to the line and drained two more free throws with 8.7 seconds left in the overtime.
The Scots’ Fred Hardgrove sank a layup with three seconds left, but Liberty let the rest of the clock run out, then celebrated its first district title.
Four Patriots scored in double figures, with Bischoff and Charbonneau leading the way with 15 points apiece, Charbonneau also hauling down eight rebounds. Senior Nick Archer added 12 points while Radkiewicz finished with 11 points and a game-high 10 boards.
Alexander topped all scorers with 22 points for Walnut Ridge, also adding a team-leading eight rebounds.