ELDERSBURG — For the better portion of 36 minutes, Liberty and Mount Hebron fought back and forth, scoring basket after basket.
In the opening day of the Liberty Holiday Basketball tournament, the nightcap provided an instant classic.
With just over six seconds remaining in the overtime period, Lions senior guard Jack Merchak dribbled down the middle of the lane, pivoted left to avoid two oncoming defenders and connected on a pass to Peyton Scheufele.
The junior squared up at the right corner of the key and hit his shot with no hesitation.
Of the 18 points he tallied Thursday, Scheufele’s final two proved to be the ultimate difference. A desperation heave by Evan Ichrist fell short and Scheufele was swarmed by his teammates as the final buzzer sounded.
Liberty prevailed in a thrilling 91-89 win.
“We played hard the whole game so I just wanted to end it,” Scheufele said. “They get me open all the time and I figured it’s just another regular shot.”
In the eyes of Lions coach Brian Tombs, the shot was meaningful for his forward.
“This was huge for him,” Tombs said. “I think this was one of his games this year where he wasn’t particularly shooting the ball well, left a lot of shots short, was getting a little bit tired. To be able to come back and make some of those shots late to put your team up is a big confidence booster.”
Tombs said he wanted to schedule teams that would provide a challenge during the holiday break. A matchup against one of Howard County’s top teams gave Liberty a grueling test for four quarters, and more.
“[Mount Hebron] is a heck of a team …There were a couple of runs they made and we could have just said, ‘It’s the holiday time,’ and kind of canned it in,” Tombs said. “But we just kept fighting and that’s what I think I’m proud about most.”
Big performances from Tristan Kent (32 points, 11 rebounds), Jack Merchant (25 points, 6 rebounds), and Scheufele paved the way for Liberty, which continued its undefeated start to the season (6-0).
Eight first-quarter points Kent helped Liberty jump out to a 23-17 lead but it would be the largest margin of the game. Defensive switches from Vikings coach Jared Ettinger countered the Lions’ low-post attack.
Mount Hebron rallied to close out the half, but Kent’s put-back layup gave Liberty a 42-41 lead.
Tombs noted the luxury of having a 6-foot-8 center in Kent, who was the tallest player on the court by two inches. His size provided mismatches in the post, and Liberty took advantage.
A fast-paced game left Tombs and his coaching staff frustrated at points as they yelled instructions to the players on the court to slow down the tempo. It was an unfamiliar feeling for the Lions, who had won with relative ease up to this point in the season.
“We haven’t had that situation really occur at this point this year,” Tombs said. “We’ve been winning games fairly early so the pressure, [the players] just want to go, go, go. In those situations, we also have to learn how to slow it down and make sure we get a good shot and execute as best as we can.”
With a tight game continuing in the second half, every possession became more important as the clock began to fade. Coming out of a timeout with 3.1 seconds remaining in regulation, Liberty had a chance to end the game on its half of the court but Cam Blankenship’s runner rimmed out.
The Lions got another look only a few minutes later as Schefuele provided the finishing touches.
“It helps me a lot,” Scheufele said on the confidence of hitting a big shot. “I more of a mid-range shooter so I love taking those shots. To knock it down just felt great.”
Tournament action continues Friday as Liberty hosts City College from Baltimore County, which toko down Century 75-72 on Thursday.
Yet another tough matchup will likely test the Lions, but they welcome the challenge.
“We could schedule some cupcakes but that doesn’t do us any good,” Tombs said. “Playing a team like Mount Hebron, who obviously has a very high skill set … It was just a good battle all around.”
Liberty (91): Ryan Luthe 4, Cam Blankenship 4, Jack Merchak 25, Connor Stewart 4, Peyton Scheufele 18, Nate Kent 4, Tristan Kent 32.
Mount Hebron (89): Brandon Prox 12, Odell Dickerson 29, Ryan Kinloch 7, Evan Ichrist 10, Stevie Jackson 10, Terrell Coleman 13, Kobi Crump 4, William Bates 4.
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Halftime: Liberty, 42-41.