Adversity came to Liberty’s boys basketball team last Friday, when the reigning Times Player of the Year went down with an injury that could sideline him for the upcoming regional playoffs.
So with Tristan Kent watching Monday’s game against Manchester Valley from the bench, dressed in sweats with his right foot in a protective boot, the Lions trailed by 10 points with about 6 minutes remaining and their chances of sharing the Carroll County Athletic League championship seemed slim.
Another player of the year came through in the clutch, however, when Liberty needed a boost — junior Nate Kent, who quarterbacked the Lions’ football team to a 10-0 regular season last fall, flashed his athleticism on the hardwood in the final moments of Monday’s contest. Kent scored five points in the final 66 seconds, including a layup at the buzzer, to lift the Lions past the Mavericks 63-61.
Liberty closed the game on a 16-4 run, capped by Kent’s put-back bucket after teammate Cam Blankenship’s driving layup didn’t fall. The Lions (20-2, 11-1 CCAL) got the ball back with 6.1 seconds to go after Manchester Valley committed a shot-clock violation on its final possession.
Blankenship saw and opening from the top of the 3-point arc and drove the lane to put up his shot, and when it didn’t go in Kent was there to clean things up. He celebrated with a big fist pump just after the buzzer sounded, and for good reason — the Lions won to clinch a share of the county title with rival Century.
“Our coaches always tell us to crash the boards. They stress that,” said Kent, who won Times Player of the Year honors for football. “I mean, if I have that opportunity I’m going to crash the boards.”
Liberty prevailed despite not having Tristan Kent’s services. Lions coach Brian Tombs said his senior forward suffered a high ankle sprain during his team’s 62-54 loss against Franklin, and the extent of the injury won’t be known until later this week.
Tombs told the Lions they’d have to fill the void, and be ready to do it for the remainder of the season if needed. Monday’s win was a step in the right direction, he said.
“As good as Tristan is, and obviously he makes things easy for us, we’re still not 20-2 without the rest of the guys on the team,” Tombs said.
Peyton Scheufele led Liberty with 20 points, and Nate Kent scored 16. Jack Merchak netted 14 points, and Schefuele grabbed seven rebounds.
The Mavericks (5-17, 4-8) played at home for the first time in one month, and came very close to pulling off the upset. They led 57-47 with 6:15 remaining, when Brett DeWees drained a baseline jumper as part of a 20-point effort.
Man Valley got into foul trouble down the stretch, however, and went cold on offense. DeWees converted a layup with 2:05 to play, giving the Mavs 61-57 lead. Merchak answered by getting fouled taking a 3-pointer on Liberty’s next possession.
He only made one free throw, cutting the deficit to three, but Kent’s 3-pointer from the right wing with 1:06 to go drew the Lions even and put a charge into the visitors.
“Being down basically down the entire game,” Blankenship said, “that was electrifying.”
Dayne Koontz scored 12 for the home team, and Dahon Saunders added 10. DeWees had four assists.
Man Valley only got to the free-throw line three times compared to Liberty’s 24, and coach Bernie Koontz said that played a big role in the outcome. But the Mavericks proved they’re playing better as the playoffs approach.
“We made them work, and we made them earn it,” Koontz said.
Merchak grabbed five rebounds for Liberty, and Connor Stewart had three assists and three steals. The Lions will prepare for the Class 2A West playoffs with the notion their top player likely won’t be in action.
“We had a good rebuilding practice on Saturday, and the coaches put together a good game plan,” Kent said. “We made some dumb plays in this game, but in the end we executed when it was needed.”
Liberty (63): Cam Blankenship 6, Jack Merchak 14, Connor Stewart 7, Peyton Scheufele 20, Nate Kent 16.