Liberty senior Steven Goetz said he didn’t think Oakdale expected the Lions to come out as strong as they did in the first half of Wednesday’s Class 2A West Section 1 final.
That realization seemed to help the Bears pick up speed, enough to defeat the Lions 67-53 to advance to the regional final Saturday.
Junior guard Jack Merchak led the Lions with 12 points and added three assists. Connor Stewart scored eight points, and Tristan Kent contributed six points and seven rebounds.
“It’s nice knowing that I’ll have a lasting memory here,” Goetz said. “The success of this program has laid the foundation for the future with the basis of our class so I’m more than happy that our class was able to set a bar for the future of the program.”
The Lions (20-4) played close with the Bears in the first half and never let more than a five-point lead get away from them.
Merchak sank the first 3-pointer of the game with 3 minutes, 47 seconds left in the second quarter to give the Lions a 19-14 lead, but Oakdale’s Noah Polke matched that with a 3 of his own to bring the Bears within two.
It would be the final time the Lions had the lead. The Bears scored five straight at the end of the quarter and led 26-24 at the break.
The Bears built a 7-0 run in the third quarter and never looked back. It was 35-27 when Goetz hit two layups and a free throw to trim the deficit, but another 3 from Polke gave the Bears a 10-point lead.
The Lions went 10-for-12 from the free-throw line in the final frame as they tried to catch up, but the Bears were already rolling. Oakdale junior Collin Schlee scored 14 of his 30 points in the fourth quarter alone.
Lions coach Brian Tombs said they expected exactly what they got from Oakdale.
“They’re a hard-nosed group,” Tombs said. “The Schlee kid is good, they’re disciplined and when you come in here you have to execute for four quarters and I felt we had our opportunities. We missed some foul shots that could have kept it a little closer to put some more pressure on them with a couple put-backs here and there but you know what, my kids played hard and at the end of the day, that’s what you ask for.”
The county champion Lions will graduate six seniors in the spring and Tombs had positive remarks to give to his team’s leaders.
“It’s a blast, they’re just a good group kids,” Tombs said. “They're fun to be around, high-character kids with a good head on their shoulders and they come in every day and they work hard and that’s all you can ask. These are always tough situations for your seniors because they realize this is it but in the next week or so when they get a chance to get away from the emotional aspect of it and reflect, they’ll realize the journey they had was really good and they did a lot of good things.”
Liberty (53): Jack Selby 9, Ronak Morgan 1, Connor Stewart 8, Ben Brown 4, Tristan Kent 6, Jack Merchak 12, Steven Goetz 7, Peyton Scheufele 6.
Oakdale (67): Schlee 30, Jezioro 10, Crawford 11, Hallis 2, Polke 6, French 6, McGaha 2.