Top-ranked Jefferson too much for Liberty boys
Whoever said size doesn't matter, hasn't seen the Jefferson Democrats play basketball.
After an historic win last Saturday against Benson in a State playoff play-in game, the Liberty Falcons boys basketball team was tasked with a heightened challenge Feb. 28 at Jefferson High School in Portland — number one.
The top-ranked Democrats, led by 6-foot-9 senior Kamaka Hepa, used a 33-0 run between the end of the second quarter and the midway point of the third, to overwhelm an eager Liberty squad and defeat the Falcons 80-44.
Liberty trailed just 17-14 after a quarter, and actually led the Demos 27-24 with less than two minutes remaining in the first half before Hepa and 6-foot-5 junior guard Marcus Tsohonis decided enough was enough. Jeff scored 11 straight to take an eight point lead to the half, then tallied the first 22 points of the third quarter to build a 57-27 lead before Trevor Walker's lay-in with 1:30 left in the third ended the Falcon drought.
"I was so proud of the guys, and they battled," said Liberty head coach Brian Martin. "They came out shooting and firing with confidence in that first half, but as the game wore on their size and athleticism caught up to us."
In addition to Hepa, Jefferson boasts 6-foot-10 forward Andrew Graves, 6-foot-8 forward Khalil Chatman, and four other players 6-foot-5 or taller, a combination that made things exceptionally difficult on the Falcons who have but one player taller than 6-foot-4.
"You've got to be perfect when you're playing against a team like that, and for a while we were doing it," said Martin. "We came in believing we could win and we did some visualization as a team, and to be honest with you, in that second quarter it was going just how we visualized it. But to beat a team like that everything has to go exactly right."
And it was early.
Liberty got three quick buckets to start the game from Nathanael Boyer, Taylor Martin and Jarett Boyce to take a quick 6-4 lead, then later took a three point lead following five straight from senior Sam Schoch before a late Hepa three-pointer gave Jeff a 17-14 lead after one.
Martin immediately tied it with a deep three to start the second quarter, then after Hepa again gave the Democrats the lead, five straight Falcon points by Boyce and Ethan Moody, in addition to a Boyer three put Liberty ahead 27-24 and eyeballing a possible upset. But then Tsohonis scored to get Jeff within one, Chatman hit a runner to give them the lead, Tsohonis finished a three-point play and Hepa closed the half with four straight, including a thunderous one-handed dunk at the buzzer to give the Demos an eight point lead, and the landscape had changed.
It was more of the same in the third quarter as Jefferson imposed their will. Scoring, rebounding, and defending like the top-ranked team in the state, putting a little frantic in the underdog Falcons.
"We missed some shots to start the second half, they got out and got on a run and with the help of some favorable calls, built momentum," said Coach Martin. "They made a couple shots, got it to eight, then got a steal and a couple lay-ins and it's 12, and at that point it's hard to get it turned around. With a team like that, once the momentum starts it's hard to get it stopped without making shots, and we weren't making them."
It was simply a matter of playing out the clock from there. But despite the loss, Coach Martin was proud of his guys and ultimately happy with how the team grew as the season progressed.
"At the beginning of the season our goal was to get to the state playoffs and have something to build on for the future," the coach said. "We had some bumps in the road, but we turned them around and I thought the last couple games were some of the better games that we played."
Now, with the loss of Boyer, Schoch and Taylor Martin to graduation, the Falcons will have to find leadership from elsewhere to continue to build on the foundation laid by the departing seniors.
"Sam Schoch, Nathanael Boyer and Taylor Martin are three really smart players and you can't undervalue what they brought to this team," Coach Martin said. "I think our kids matured so much, and that maturity needs to carry on to next year for these returning kids. We desire to be in a place like Jefferson, where you're a high seed and hosting playoff games, and that takes time. I think these guys set a great foundation, now we need to build on top of it to get to a place like this."