REYNOLDSBURG — Panic is not a mentality closely associated with the Liberty Patriots, and there was no panic in them Wednesday night, even down seven points with 2:50 to play.
Liberty may have played its best in those final three minutes, going on a remarkable 10-0 run and getting out of dodge with a thrilling 53-50 victory over the Gahanna Lions in a Division I Central District Semifinal at Reynoldsburg High School.
“Our kids, and especially our seniors, really stepped up,” Liberty coach Greg Nossaman said. “We’re down seven points with less than three minutes to go, and it probably didn’t look good for the average fan watching late in the game, but we hit our free throws, got a couple stops and managed the last minute very well.”
Liberty (20-2) will face No. 2-seeded Walnut Ridge at 3 p.m. Saturday in the second of three Division I District championship games at the Fairgrounds Coliseum, but Gahanna (16-7) made the route much more difficult.
The Lions rallied early in the first quarter, keeping the Patriots off the scoreboard for over four minutes in the first quarter, used an 8-0 run in the third quarter to take a seven-point lead, 31-24, with 4:30 left in period, and held seven-point leads five times in the final period, the last a 50-43 lead with 2:50 remaining.
Gahanna had 12 points in the final period, all scored by either Aaron Jackson or Isaiah Israel, who both had six in the final frame.
“They’re tough to guard,” Nossaman said. “We’re more big and they’re more on the perimeter, they’re quick, they get to the hole and Israel can slash and really get to the hole.”
Liberty played a clean final period, but with only two team fouls, the Patriots needed to put the Lions at the foul stripe, and did so in a span of just over two minutes.
In the meantime, the Patriots kept their defense working. Liberty allowed just one shot during that time, forced a turnover, and when Manny Powell stepped to the line for the one-and-one with 57 seconds left, he missed the front end and saw Liberty junior Alex Radkiewicz pull down the rebound.
“We wanted steals but we ended up fouling,” Nossaman said. “I don’t want to say we fouled the right person, because we wanted to foul (Ronnie) Stokes or Jackson, but we got the rebound, came down and our seniors stepped up and made shots when they needed them.”
Senior Jake Bischoff had cut the deficit to four earlier with a three-pointer, senior A.J. Motika, who re-injured his shoulder in the first quarter, hit a free throw and senior Nick Archer hit a layup off a Motika feed to cut the lead to one point, 50-49. Then, after the missed free toss, Bischoff fed a short pass to Archer, who hit another layup with 32 seconds left, giving Liberty the lead.
“A.J. went out with a bad shoulder in the first quarter, and he’s the glue to our team,” Nossaman said. “I was a little worried because he helps take the pressure off Jake bringing the ball up the floor, but he told me, ‘Coach, I don’t want it to end now. Put me back in,’ so we did, and he left it all on the floor.”
Liberty’s defense then forced another turnover, and Bischoff drained two shots in the one-and-one to put the Patriots up by three with 15 seconds left.
Liberty nearly forced another turnover in the final seconds, but Gahanna’s Grant Patch’s three-point attempt at the horn hit the side of the backboard as the buzzer sounded.
Bischoff topped all scorers with 22 points, while Archer added 13 points. Radkiewicz finished with seven points on the night, Motika added five, and both juniors Sam DeRoy and Nick Nossaman drained a three apiece for the Patriots.
Jackson had a strong game for the Lions, finishing with a team-high 21 points. Austin Rutherford added nine points, Israel eight and Powell seven points for Gahanna.