ELDERSBURG — After a shaky start to the 2019-20 season, Liberty boys basketball seems to be peaking at the right time.
With the postseason two weeks away, the Lions have won four of their last five games after defeating visiting Westminster 57-53 in Carroll County Athletic League Action on Friday.
“I just the love the fight in our kids,” Liberty coach Brian Tombs said. “I thought we played hard from start to finish. Obviously, there were some ugly stretches but we never quit.”
It was a back-and-forth game, with Liberty’s eight-point halftime lead the largest for either side. Following an 8-0 Owls run to start the third quarter, neither team led by more than four until a double-technical foul on Westminster with 1:04 remaining in the fourth.
Liberty led 47-44 after the double technical, and junior Justin Sheetz knocked down all four free throws to extend the lead to seven. Sheetz hit all eight of his free-throw attempts in the fourth quarter and scored a team-high 17 points.
“He’s a kid now going forward, he’s earned that trust,” Tombs said of Sheetz, who went 12-for-12 from the line. “He’s someone we’ll look to down the stretch.”
Following a miss on the front end of a one-and-one by Westminster’s Michael Prozeller, Shane Stewart knocked down one of two free throws to extend Liberty’s lead to 52-44. The Lions fouled Chandler Gentzel while he was shooting a 3-pointer on the next possession, and Gentzel hit all three free throws to cut Liberty’s lead to five with 42.6 seconds remaining.
Liberty (10-9, 7-3 CCAL) was still in control, but Westminster’s press changed that in an instant. The Owls forced consecutive turnovers, and a layup from Gentzel and two free throws from Denio Blaney cut the Lions lead to 52-51 with 35 seconds to play.
Liberty traded free throws with a Westminster layup, setting up two free throws for Stewart. Stewart made the first and missed the second, but Jayden Adams came up with a key rebound to maintain possession. Senior Nathan Kent hit two more free throws to seal the victory.
“We made two bad turnovers but we still had the lead,” Tombs said. “The bottom line was get the ball in, take care of it, get to the foul line and make your free throws.”
After coming up short in a 63-55 loss to Westminster (14-6, 8-2) on Jan. 10, Tombs thought his team adjusted better to the Owls’ pressure defense the second time around. Westminster’s trap forced a shot clock violation on the first possession and made it difficult for the first few minutes, but Liberty adjusted. However, hot shooting by Blaney gave Westminster a 20-13 second-quarter lead.
Westminster battled back to tie the game, eventually taking the lead again on Tyler Buberl jumper early in the fourth quarter. Liberty retook the lead for good on a layup from Adams with under four minutes remaining.
As Liberty adjusted to the Owls defense, the Lions also locked in defensively. They switched to zone, and that cut off Westminster’s high post action. Liberty forced four straight turnovers to end the second quarter, scoring off each. A buzzer-beating 3 from Steven Talbot capped off a 14-1 run and gave Liberty a 29-21 lead.
“We knew that was going to happen early on and we kind of dismissed it early on which was a bit of a mistake,” Sheetz said. “But once we figured it out. ... We really took advantage of it and fronted that post.”
Westminster (53): Chandler Gentzel 10, Tyler Buberl 5, Denio Blaney 17, Erick Stranko 4, Connor Levinson 5, Nico Graham 9, Alan Jean Joseph 3.
Liberty (57): Shane Stewart 10, Justin Sheetz 17, Connor Stewart 3, Peyton Scheufele 6, Elias Rimel 3, Nate Kent 7, Steven Talbot 3, Jayden Adams 8.
Halftime: Liberty, 29-21.
JV result: Westminster, 47-46.