The thunderstorm of threes never ran out of force, no matter what defense Mountainside deployed, no matter how hard the Mavericks closed out on locked and loaded shooters.
From the onset of the Class 6A quarterfinal contest against Liberty, it was clear the Falcons were in one of those unbreakable rhythms, one Mountainside hoped to curb as the game went along. The only issue? The Falcons' flame simply grew hotter and stronger in the second half, spreading from one sniper to the next.
Liberty made a whopping 14 three-pointers on 26 attempts and ran away from the Mavericks in a 62-44 quarterfinal conquest on March 11. The illumination inside the Chiles Center was still fully functioning after the contest came to a close. But the way the Falcons connected consistently from deep, one wouldn't have been surprised if the electricity short-circuited. Liberty was that locked in from start to finish. Falcon junior Taylin Smith hit five triples. Bella Hammel added four more. Alexa Smith came off the bench and buried four of her own. Those three players accounted for 13 of the 14 treys.
"They came ready to shoot that ball and they killed it with that three-pointer," Mountainside sophomore shooting guard Carly Stone said. "That's what really got us. Liberty played amazing. We were doing the best we could to keep up with them. Their threes were just dropping like layups. Playoff games get crazy and it happened to fall in their favor tonight."
And it wasn't as if Mountainside was in a funk shooting the rock. On the contrary, the Mavericks went blow-for-blow in the first half with the on-fire Falcons, hitting six of nine threes of their own. Both Halle Hageman (three treys) and Carly Smith (two treys) were perfect from deep as the Mavericks earned all sorts of open looks against the Liberty 2-3 zone. Mountainside would funnel the ball into superstar Cameron Brink around the high post or low block and the senior forward would kick the ball out to the Mavs' ready-to-shoot perimeter players. Or, Mountainside unselfishly swung the rock from one side of the floor to the next, made the extra pass and found ideal uncovered casts. Hagemann buried a left corner three off a Smith find that cut Liberty's lead to 21-20. Stone's three off a Brink post pass brought Mountainside within 26-23.
But Tailyn Smith made four first half treys: pullups, off-ball screens, catch and shoots, including two late in the second quarter. Liberty led 35-25 at the half and made eight of 17 three pointers. One would assume the Falcons would cool down a bit and the Mavericks could make some sort of move to take the postseason clash. The law of shooting averages suggested as such. Liberty's heater would chill, Brink could take over and carry her team to the finish line.
Yet, two minutes into the third quarter, Liberty made its first three three-pointers, two from Hammel, the other from Smith, to open up a 44-25 lead. An 8-1 Maverick run at the end of the third got Mountainside back into the game after almost getting knocked out completely to begin the half.
However, Liberty started the fourth period without hesitancy. Alexa Smith cashed in a corner three and then Hammel hit a floater that pushed Liberty's lead back out to 54-38.
"It totally sucks, you can't really do anything about it," Stone said. "(Smith) was shooting from behind the third (three-point) line. She's an amazing player and there's not much you can do about it. All of their players were hitting, it wasn't just her. That was hard because we'd stick on (Smith) and somebody else would hit that three for her."
Chiles Center, a notoriously tough place for marksmen who aren't used to the arena, was Liberty's shooters' paradise.
"Oftentimes people say shooting percentages go down here, and it is a tough place to score the ball sometimes from the perimeter," Liberty head coach Melanie Wagoner said, "but when the first one goes in, then the second one, it lets everyone relax a little bit, and you saw the result.
"These girls just work really hard," the coach said. "I feel like when you put in the work it gives you the right to have confidence and believe in yourselves, and that's what these kids did."
For all of Mountainside's fight to stay in it, Liberty never led by less than double digits in the second half. The Mavericks couldn't match their first-half shooting efficiency after the Falcons scrapped their zone defense in favor of a more standardized man-to-man scheme. Mountainside went more than eight minutes without scoring after scrapping within 48-38.
"We were pulling everything we had out of the book, (Liberty's) defense was just there," Stone said. "We thought we had an even matchup lineups-wise. But I think their shooting got to us in the second half. We started missing again and they kept their energy up."
This wasn't the first time Mountainside had played on the Chiles Center floor, after facing Benson at the Martin Luther King Day Classic two months ago. That familiarity likely helped Mountainside move past the pregame jitters and get out to the fast start. Still, for sophomores such as Stone and Smith who dreamed of playing on this stage from an early age, stepping out in front of a big crowd with a live atmosphere was awe-inspiring.
"I've been coming to these games since the third grade, so, to actually be a part of it now is pretty crazy," Stone said. "You have so much adrenaline when you're playing. You get hit and it doesn't even hurt. You're getting bodied around out there and everybody is feeling the same way. It's very fun to be a part of.
Hageman led the Mavericks with 12 points and chipped in five boards and two assists. Brink added 9 points, 9 rebounds and three assists. Lindsey Wilson also had nine points. Stone accounted for six points with two threes. Mountainside plays Southridge in the 6A consolation bracket on Friday at 9 a.m.
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