Liberty's Class 2A West Section 2 quarterfinal matchup came down to the final second Friday night as South Carroll was set to inbound the ball under its own basket. Cole Buffington broke free for the Cavaliers and got off a clean jump shot, but it hit the rim giving the Lions a dramatic 59-57 victory.
The Cavaliers won both regular-season matchups against Liberty, but the Lions came away with the one that mattered the most.
The crowd erupted as the players rushed to center court to start celebrating after Liberty clinched the win. The two teams were never separated by more than eight points throughout the contest as Liberty edged out the Cavaliers in a fast-paced fourth quarter.
Down the stretch, it was Liberty's defense and rebounding that sealed it. The Lions switched to a full-court press toward the end of the third quarter and immediately threw the Cavaliers out of rhythm.
"Tonight I thought our leadership from David [Downs] and Nick [Tilson] and Ryan [Turlik], who came off the bench as a senior, really just sparked us," Liberty coach Brian Tombs. "Just leaving it all on the floor has been our game plan all year … those 50-50 balls we've been preaching about all week, those are the ones you have to have, some breaks go your way and some don't, but those 50-50 balls were huge for us tonight."
The Lions (10-12) scored 17 points in the final frame to preserve a small lead and advance to the next round, where it will travel to top-seeded Oakland Mills on Monday at 7.
South Carroll led by two points with just more than two minutes remaining when Justin Brookhart made a 3-pointer to put the Lions up again for good. David Downs had two steals in the final two minutes, as well as an offensive rebound off a missed free throw, to help secure the victory.
Colin Rimel hit two free throws with nine seconds remaining, but the Cavaliers (10-14) weren't ready to finish their season. Andrew Buckley raced down the court with the ball and found Steven Baca for an open layup with 1.2 seconds remaining.
The Lions called a timeout, but failed to get the ball inbounds within five seconds to give South Carroll a final chance.
The Cavaliers led for most of the first half due in large part to Buffington's 16 points in the first two quarters. He finished with 18. But Liberty responded late in the quarter to take a 30-29 lead into the break.
South Carroll responded in the third quarter by scoring the first eight points to gain some distance from the Lions.
Liberty didn't score until there was just 2 minutes, 35 seconds remaining in the quarter and following a timeout, it went into a frantic full-court press.
"We're pretty fast so we figured we could press, but they got uncomfortable when we got up on them, so it worked out for us," Tilson said.
Added Tombs, "I thought we played fairly strong, we are very undersized against them and we started out just playing a half-court game and feeling things out a little bit … and about midway through that third quarter when we struggling offensively we knew we needed to turn it up and try to get our guys out in the open court a little more and pick up the energy."
Momentum shifted when the Lions went to high-pressure defense and when Downs hit a step-back 3-pointer to end the third quarter, the Liberty student section erupted into cheers as the Lions went into the final frame up three.
South Carroll ended its season with four consecutive losses and none more heart-breaking then Friday night's contest. Buffington was nearly unstoppable in the first half, and in the final quarter Henry Cook took over to keep the Cavs in the game.
Cook scored 11 of his game-high 19 in the fourth and also registered two assists, but it wasn't enough for South Carroll.
"Our defense was OK in the second half, but we didn't rebound and that was the key to the game and their press hurt us," Cavs coach Jim Carnes said. "The key to this game was defense, they made defensive plays with their press and we didn't rebound."
Rimel led the Lions with 15 points and his hot shooting in the first quarter opened the floor up for them giving other players better looks. Downs finished with five points in the fourth and 11 for the game as part of a balanced offensive attack for Liberty as seven different players scored.
South Carroll (57): Henry Cook 19, Cole Buffington 18, Silas Kelly 11, Andrew Buckley 5, Steven Baca 2, Adam Russo 2.
Liberty (59): Colin Rimel 15, David Downs 11, Justin Brookhart 10, Ryan Turlik 9, Nick Tilson 7, Jack Selby 5, Ben Brown 2.
Halftime: Liberty, 30-29.