It was the ending Liberty girls basketball dreamed of, but not the start the Lions hoped for.
Liberty missed its first eight shots and fell into a nine-point hole after one quarter in Thursday night’s Class 2A West Region I championship game against Century.
But in the second quarter, something changed. Liberty’s Jenna Liska needed just one word to sum up the change: “Jess.”
Liberty’s Jess Littlejohn hit three baskets in the first 90 seconds of the second quarter. From that point forward, it seemed the only time Littlejohn wasn’t in control was when she wasn’t sure which side of the net she was supposed to cut down.
The team captain poured in 28 points as the Lions topped the Knights, 44-38, for the regional championship.
“Honestly, I’m shell-shocked,” Littlejohn said. “We worked hard for this moment all season. We came out pretty hot in the beginning of the year, then we had this stretch where some of us got sick, we had to shut down a bit and we hit a cold stretch. But we knew we had it all along. We just had to fight, keep pushing the whole time.”
Liberty advances to the state quarterfinals against an opponent to be announced. The eight remaining teams in 2A will be reseeded according to regular-season record.
At the outset, it was Century and Eva Brandt in control. The senior forward had six points and five rebounds in the first quarter alone as the Knights jumped out to a 13-4 edge.
Then Littlejohn and the Lions roared back.
“I just knew I had to take over the game and I had to motivate my teammates at the same time,” she said. “My teammates had to work with me and I had to work with my teammates. We had to play team ball. That first quarter, we weren’t working together very well. We knew we had to come together.”
Littlejohn scored Liberty’s first nine second-quarter points as the Lions pulled within two. Kassie O’Hern joined in, knocking down a 3-pointer that gave Liberty its first lead at 18-17.
In the second and third quarters alone, the game had three ties and seven lead changes. Littlejohn scored the final seven points of the third quarter, swinging the game for the final time. The Lions took a 39-35 lead to the fourth.
At that point, Littlejohn had 26 points, but Brandt added 20 to keep the game close. They were putting on an offensive showcase.
But defense wins championships, and defense closed the game in Liberty’s favor.
“We just slowed down and took the game over,” Liska said. “We went at our pace so we could keep our game going and shut theirs down.”
Liska and teammate Maddi Haggerty made the paint virtually impenetrable. The Knights struggled to get good looks at the basket and hit just 1 of 12 field goals in the fourth quarter, a period won by Liberty, 5-3.
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“I think we got a little stagnant in the second half offensively and moved away from the tough defense we played in the beginning,” Century coach Danielle Fieni said. “But I was proud of the way we fought back and have responded to adversity this season. We just came up short this time.”
Liberty coach Barry Green said he was well versed in Century’s firepower. The job for him and his team was to force the Knights to take the shots the Lions wanted them to take.
At the end of the day, [Mia Graff] got 20 on us earlier in the year. So we knew the firepower [Erin] Mellendick and [Caroline] Little bring to the table,” Green said. “We also knew the last time we played them, they didn’t have Eva Brandt. You can’t stop or shut down an Eva Brandt. We’ve tried for four years and we realized that’s not going to happen. So we wanted to make sure we dictated as much as we could, where they got their shots.”
The other key was rebounding. Though Century had the overall edge, 41-36, with Brandt grabbing 12 to go with her 22 total points, both Liska and Haggerty pulled down 11 rebounds to limit the Knights from getting many second chances. That paired with the team’s defense nicely in crunch time.
“We had to box out. Our coach was getting on us about that,” Liska said. “Then just pressuring them on offense, fronting the post, just staying active.”
The postgame mood in the gym was one of joy, with the Lions celebrating their regional championship one night after the boys team celebrated its title. But the celebration will end quickly, as there’s more work to be done.
“Just tonight,” Littlejohn said on how long they’d celebrate the win. “Then we go into practice looking toward Saturday and hopefully to states.”