Liberty won 20 games a season ago, cruised to its first outright boys basketball county championship in 35 years, and considered itself the team to beat in the Class 2A West Region.
So when things didn’t turn out as planned for the Lions, they made a point to regroup this winter and get right back to doing what has made them quite successful over the past three years. All the while carrying what felt like a uncharacteristic loss in the playoffs with them into the 2018-19 season.
So far, the motivation has led Liberty to a 15-0 record. And the reigning Carroll County Athletic League champions are locked into playing deeper into this year that ever before.
“We’re a team that has been together for a very long time,” said guard Cam Blankenship, one of the Lions’ seven seniors. “We’ve always played together. Going from last year, being an amazing team, we were great. We built the team chemistry … that’s basically how we’ve [gone] from last year to this year.”
Liberty carried a 20-3 record into last year’s 2A West Section 1 final against Oakdale, where the Bears played at home and won 67-53 (they later topped Williamsport to take the regional crown). Crafting a fine season, and winning the program’s first outright county title since 1983, meant little to the Lions after their playoff exit.
Knowing almost everyone would be back this winter gave coach Brian Tombs and his players reason to be excited, however.
Six-foot-7 center Tristan Kent, last year’s Times Player of the Year, returned for his senior season. Liberty graduated guard Jack Selby, a first-team all-county pick in 2018 who was the team’s second leading scorer. But the Lions have filled the void so far — Blankenship, fellow senior Jack Merchak, and junior guard Connor Stewart anchor the backcourt, with Kent getting help from junior Peyton Scheufele (6-3) in the post.
Kent is averaging 18.7 points and 11.6 rebounds, both tops in the CCAL. Merchak is Liberty’s second leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, followed by Scheufele (11.3), Stewart (10.2), and Blankenship (8.3).
Scheufele adds 5.8 rebounds, and Merchak grabs 5.3 per game to go with a county-best 4.7 assists.
“You have to learn how to win first,” said Tombs, who is 81-60 in his five-plus seasons as Lions coach. “We had been a competitive team my first two years. I think last year we figured out what it was to be a good team, not just an average team. I think that started the building process. These guys, coming into this year, they believed it.”
Liberty went 12-11 in 2012-13, Tombs’ first season, then had consecutive losing campaigns. Since then, the Lions are 49-14 and 26-4 in county play.
“They believe every game they walk into,” Tombs said, “they can win.”
Liberty averages 73.5 points per game and showcases a balanced offense. The Lions have enjoyed comfortable win, but they’ve also been tested throughout the season. They went 2-0 at their own holiday tournament in late December, but had to outlast an athletic City College team from Baltimore, 66-58, after needing overtime to take down Marriotts Ridge 91-89.
They started 2019 with a 63-61 victory over Tuscarora. On Jan. 11, they hosted rival Century in their season’s biggest matchup to date.
The Knights controlled the game early, posted a 20-point lead, and led by 14 entering the fourth quarter. Liberty didn’t falter, though, and forced OT before edging Century 79-78 on a late bucket from Scheufele.
“We just had a lot of heart that game,” Kent said. “It’s still crazy. I can’t believe we won.”
Chalk it up to a tight bond the Lions have been forming since before high school, Merchak said, when many of them played together at the travel basketball level.
“Some teams might think that they’re done, so we know that we have that chance to come back,” Merchak said. “Having the confidence that we’re undefeated, we know that we can win any game.”
Liberty is 6-0 in the CCAL, halfway to back-to-back unbeaten county records. Kent, who last season led Carroll in rebounding and field-goal percentage, and was third in scoring, said this winter has been the favorite of his career.
But it’s not without a few more goals.
Century and Oakdale are two of Liberty’s hurdles, as the team sees it. Blankenship said the Lions expect to have to beat the Knights and Bears in the playoffs if they want to capture the program’s first regional championship.
“Coach always says that we always want Oakdale and Century on our minds, basically, because they’re the biggest games,” Blankenship said. “Century, we’re always playing a close game. The rivalry games are always close. Beating them, it just gave us energy. We just want to go out there and assert ourselves, show how much better we’ve become.”