All wins aren't created equal, and when Century traveled to Liberty High School Friday night, Feb. 7, both teams knew it was a game that would go a long way toward either earning or falling short of a postseason berth when all things are said and done.
Fortunately for the Jaguars, they who came out on top, defeating the home Falcons 60-54 in a key midseason Pacific Conference battle.
"This was a big win for us," Century head coach Scott Kellar said. "We felt like we let one slip away from us in our first meeting, and to their credit they made the plays on that night to get it done. So it was nice to even things up with them and keep us in the hunt for the playoffs."
With the win, Century improved to 4-3 in conference play and into a tie with Forest Grove for third place. Meanwhile, Liberty fell to 3-4 and into fifth place, a game out of one of the elusive three automatic playoff berths.
Despite the defeat, Liberty head coach Brian Martin remained optimistic about his team's chances going forward.
"We're still confident," Martin said. "The kids know that if we continue to do certain things defensively, and certain things offensively, we have a chance to beat anyone in our league. So we need to keep that mindset to make sure to give us a chance to win."
After taking a four-point lead after one quarter, Liberty cut the Century lead to three as the two teams headed to their locker rooms for halftime. The Jags added to that lead in the third, building an eight-point margin heading to the fourth, where they hung on as the Falcons pushed hard from behind on the back of senior post Cole Smith, who tallied 10 of his 21 overall points in the final stanza.
"Overall, I thought we played pretty well," Kellar said. "It was a back-and-forth game, just like our first game with them. I thought we did a good job in the second half of maintaining our lead and keeping things between four and eight points, and we executed well."
Defensively however, things weren't quite as rosy. The coach mentioned some specific troubles, including their work on Smith inside, but also pointed to his team's resilience in terms of their response to the Falcons' comeback bid, along with their ability to make free throws down the stretch.
"We got some timely stops, but we struggled guarding Smith inside," Kellar said. "Luckily every time they made a play, we seemed to come back with a bucket. Then we hit some clutch free throws down the stretch with Chance (Sparks) and Eddie (Essien), which kept them a bay."
Martin, too, pointed to defensive lapses as a key aspect of his team's defeat, but was also quick to shine a positive light on Smith, who he said was nothing short of impressive against a game Century squad.
"Cole was terrific," Martin said. "We ran a lot of things at the high post which allowed him to attack the rim, and he attacked both directions and with both hands."
The Liberty coach added that Smith was hampered at the start the year due to a football injury and has also been playing in pain for the bulk of this season on the hardwood. But while compromised physically, little has stopped the senior from progressively getting better as the year's gone on.
"He's still fighting through some pain, but he's become more comfortable with what we're doing and the guys have become more comfortable with him," Martin said. "He's practiced better for us in recent weeks and I'm really happy for him. He's been doing some great stuff on the court."
Kellar was equally pleased with his kids, citing their work ethic as something that separates them from the pack.
"They work so hard," the Century coach said. "They treat practices in February just like they did back in November, which makes them a very unique group of kids and it's great to see them get a reward for their effort. I couldn't be happier for these kids."
Now, with just five games remaining and just three playoff bids up for grabs, Kellar knows every game matters equally as they head for what they hope will be a spot in this year's OSAA state playoffs.
"I hate to use the cliché, but we're just trying to stay focused on the next game," Kellar said. "All eyes are on Glencoe now, who we had a tough game with the first time around. But hopefully when it's all said and done, there'll be another game out their waiting for us."
Liberty will face that same Glencoe team this coming Friday. But while a game behind where they need to be for a shot at the playoffs, they've certainly not lost hope in a league where nearly anything seems possible.
"There's a lot of parity in this league, and unfortunately for us we've lost a number of close ones at the end," Martin said. "Forest Grove was close, the Newberg game went to overtime, both Century games have been close at the ends, which makes for exciting basketball games, and coming toward the end, we know that everyone has a shot."
In addition to Smith's 21 points, other Liberty scorers included: Aidan Reitzug 10, Jaxson Lake 8, Zane Bernhard 6, Joey Abelsen 5 and Tyler Rockwell 4.
Century was led by Edidem Essien's 16 points, while other scorers included: Jospin Mugisha 14, Ikin Chan 9, Kyle Hamnes 8, Chance Sparks 7 and Keallum Colburn 6.
Liberty is off this week until a Friday, Feb. 14, contest at Glencoe, while Century hosts Glencoe at 5:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 12, at Century High School before hosting McMinnville at 5:45 p.m. on Feb. 14, also at Century High School.
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