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Liberty enjoys hot start, but Middletown recovers and rolls to 2A quarterfinal win

Eight minutes into Friday night’s Class 2A state quarterfinal saw Liberty filled with exuberance and Middletown looking for an adjustment.

The Knights did just that, and try as the Lions did they couldn’t come up with an answer. Six-foot-2 junior sensation Saylor Poffenbarger had a little bit to do with it — the University of Connecticut commit overcame a scoreless first quarter and notched a triple-double in leading her girls basketball team to a 70-46 victory.

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Liberty (17-8) led 19-9 after the first quarter, got 12 points from senior Rachel Thiem, and had many of the Knights looking winded from its up-tempo pace. Middletown (25-1) went to a 1-2-2 zone on defense to change things up, and the visitors didn’t solve it until it was far too late.

“We were excited, and we were ready to keep rolling,” Thiem said. “But we knew they were coming. We knew they were going to be coming.”

Did they ever — the Knights won the second quarter 22-3 and never looked back. Liberty cut the deficit to nine at 39-30 with 3 minutes, 34 seconds to play in the third quarter, and in a flash Middletown put any doubts on the outcome to rest.

The home team closed the quarter on an 11-0 run and led by 20 points, with Poffenbarger taking over under the basket. The Knights’ lead ballooned to 57-31 with 5:20 to play before junior Alex Bull drained a 3 for the weary Lions.

Liberty also finished with 30 turnovers against Middletown’s defense, while Poffenbarger posted 32 points, 11 rebounds, and 10 steals. She also tallied six assists and three blocks.

Still, the Lions’ hot start quieted a filled gymnasium and had the visiting team’s fans feeling good. Liberty, regional champs for the first time in a decade, tried to establish a fast-paced attack on offense in an effort to tire Middletown’s bigger players, seven of which are listed at 5-7 or taller.

The Knights found their reserve before Liberty had a chance to catch its own collective breath.

“I don’t think they were expecting us to play that well,” said Lions senior guard Jordan Nastos. “And then in the second quarter they adjusted. But [in] the first quarter, we had so much energy coming in. We were ready to play, we were so excited.”

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Reality set in during the fourth quarter, but Liberty kept playing with coach Barry Green imploring the Lions to finish strong. Thiem did just that, with nine points in the final four minutes of her high school career. And Nastos capped the scoring with a 3-pointer at the buzzer — her first made trey of the season.

Green said the Lions weren’t awestruck playing against Poffenbarger, but there were several moments throughout the game in which Liberty’s coach cracked a smile in watching the junior forward flash her skills.

“Therein likes a true blessing,” Green said about facing a future Division I player. “Some of these kids, and probably even me, we’ll get our mugs on ‘SportsCenter’ when they do those little [flashbacks in a few years].”

Thiem collected 21 points and eight rebounds, and Nastos had four boards and seven points to go with three assists. Jess Littlejohn, a sophomore guard, had five rebounds and junior Sam Hardy added four steals. Bull also scored seven for Liberty.

Junior guard Meghan Shipley scored 18 and added five assists and five steals for Middletown, which moves on to the state semifinals next week at Towson University in search of its fifth championship and first since 2006.

Some of the Lions were emotional following the loss, but they won’t forget celebrating a regional title a few days ago and getting a chance to play in a state tournament contest against one of the best players in the nation.

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“It was amazing, and I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with any other team,” Thiem said. “They were the best. Having two years with them, because really we were the same team two years in a row, it was an amazing journey.”

Liberty (46): Samantha Hardy 5, Rachel Thiem 21, Jordan Nastos 7, Alex Bull 7, Jess Littlejohn 4, Jenna Liska 2.

Middletown (70): Meghan Shipley 18, Saylor Poffenbarger 32, Melanie Pick 7, Julia Harris 2, Caitlin Woelkers 5, Bri Horman 3, Riley Nelson 3.

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