ELDERSBURG — Liberty and Westminster were each coming off Carroll County Athletic League losses entering Thursday’s matchup.
It marked the first meeting between the teams this season and both had their sights set on rebounding with a victory but the Lions came out on top in dominating fashion, defeating the Owls 67-41.
Six days have passed since Liberty’s undefeated season streak was snapped in a county loss at Century, and the Lions only had Wednesday to practice prior to Thursday’s game. Inclement weather resulted in school closures on Monday and Tuesday, canceling any after-school practices and events.
“Coming off the Century loss, we wanted to get right back at it where we were before and get another win,” Lions senior Jack Merchak said. “We wanted to take it to them right away and Coach [Brian Tombs] was telling us that we just have to come out fast and not wait for the second half.”
Fellow guard Connor Stewart, a junior, said there have been games this winter during which the Lions started out slow, and starting — and finishing — strong was one of the team’s central focuses against the Owls.
Merchak, Stewart, and senior Tristan Kent led the way for the Lions (17-1, 8-1 CCAL), who kept pace with first-place Century (9-1) in the county standings. The Knights have two county games remaining on their schedule, and split their regular-season series with the Lions.
Liberty has three, starting with Manchester Valley on Friday.
Merchak scored a game-high 16 points for the Lions and added three assists, Stewart scored 12 points and notched seven assists and four steals. Merchak and Stewart contributed four steals apiece, and Kent, the Lions’ 6-foot-7 center, notched a double-double with 13 points and 12 rebounds.
The Lions scored 37 points in the first half and held the Owls to 11 — Stewart scored 12 in the half and Merchak had nine. The Lions had scoring runs of eight in the first frame and 19 in the second to build their lead.
Westminster’s Drue Giles sank two 3-pointers to lead the Owls with six points at the break.
Liberty opened the second half with 10 straight points, six from Kent, before the Owls trimmed the deficit with a jumper shot from Joe Wright with just under four minutes remaining in the third quarter.
Wright sparked a 6-0 run for the Owls before Peyton Scheufele retaliated with a layup to give the Lions a 49-17 lead.
A 3-points from Michael Prozeller early in the fourth made it 52-30 and the Owls continued to chip away and got within 20 points of Liberty. The teams pulled most of their starters during a late timeout and Liberty’s Kyle Hinton hit a 3 at the buzzer to give the Lions the final margin of victory.
“This is one of those games where you have to stay focused on to get to the end of the season,” Stewart said. “This is a good team that we have to get through to win out the rest of the season.”
Giles led Westminster with 14 points and four steals and assists apiece. Prozeller contributed 10 points and Wright had five rebounds for the Owls (12-7, 7-4).
“We’re in playoff mode now and that’s the focus,” Tombs said. “You want to be playing your best basketball by the end of the year so it’s kind of that refocus to get back at it. It’s a long season and we’ve been wearing down a little bit so we had a couple days off to refresh. It felt good to get after it at practice last night and then today so I think the guys did a great job coming out and imposing their will a little bit.”
Westminster (41): Drue Giles 14, Joe Wright 8, Jacob Busic 2, Joey Long 3, Michael Prozeller 10, Christian Etchison 2.
Liberty (67): Cam Blankenship 8, Justin Pellicciotti 4, Kyle Hinton 3, Jack Merchak 16, Connor Stewart 12, Peyton Scheufele 7, Nate Kent 2, Tim Cortese 2, Tristan Kent 13.
Halftime: Liberty, 32-11.
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