It's not how you start, it's how you finish.
The Liberty girls basketball team had a rough beginning to this year's Pacific Conference season, losing handily to Sherwood more than two weeks ago. But since then the Falcons have won four straight, are again playing as a team, and as a result, sit atop the league standings as they approach the midway point of what could be a historic year.
"I feel like we've been more confident and patient looking for our shots and playing our game," said Liberty guard Taylin Smith. "Against Sherwood we didn't do that. Now we're playing together and as one unit and it shows in our results."
The sophomore guard led all scorers with 18 points in a 45-32 win over Forest Grove Friday, Jan. 25, at Forest Grove High School, but it was her — along with her teammates' — work off the ball that was the Vikings' undoing on this night.
Liberty's full and half-court pressure repeatedly put Forest Grove (2-4, 12-6) in a disheveled state, stifling the Viking offense and creating turnovers and subsequently transition opportunities at the offensive end. Smith, along with fellow sophomore Livia Knapp, junior Talia Kahakai-Wyatt, and even junior post Clara Robbins wreaked havoc on the young Vikings, keeping them in disarray on the perimeter and thwarting point-blank attempts in the paint.
"We like to get teams scared and on their heels, and when we see that we like to attack," Smith said. "We like to get in other teams' heads when we can and get layups at the other end."
And it worked. The young Vikings — while cognizant of and prepared for what they saw — struggled with the speed of the Falcons' press, panicking at times and feeding what was a hungry Liberty defense.
"We weren't surprised by anything they did," said Forest Grove head coach Dan Lumpkin. "We knew they'd come out and pressure, a lot of traps, and we worked on it a couple days in practice, but it's hard to simulate their speed."
The coach thought, despite their struggles with the pressure, that his team had opportunities to compete, but in the end boiled it down to a lack of execution — a frequent byproduct of a team as young as his Vikings.
"We had open opportunities and people were open, we just weren't finding them," the coach said. "We rushed our shots. At times we handled the pressure and came down and got good looks, but often we panicked and you can't do that against good teams. That plays right into their hands."
The visiting Falcons (4-1, 10-7) jumped on Forest Grove early, taking a 12-1 lead after a quarter. The Vikings pulled closer in the second, getting four quick points from Olivia Grosse to cut the lead to seven and inching within five, 16-11 after four straight free throws from Kayleen Dominguez. Liberty took that five point lead to the half, then made it 10 immediately to start the second half when Smith hit a quick two and Knapp followed that with a three to put the Falcons ahead 24-14. A Katie Ellington basket cut the lead to eight, but eight straight Smith points — including consecutive threes — blew the game open, putting Liberty ahead 33-17 midway through the third quarter.
Throughout the second half and for the most part the game, likely as a result of Liberty's pressure, Forest Grove appeared a step slow and hesitant on the offensive end, passing up shots and rushing open ones when they presented themselves. Lumpkin said his team needs to play with more confidence and trust the system, along with their own abilities in order to compete on a more consistent basis.
"I think at times we lack confidence and an understanding that when the ball comes to you and you're open, you have to be ready to make a play," he said. "Whether that's shooting, driving, passing, you can't hesitate. But that's part of the growing process and we'll get there."
The Vikings pulled within three to start the fourth quarter, but Smith made that 15 almost immediately after, and Liberty cruised from there. Now, since that disastrous night against Sherwood to start the conference year, Smith thinks they've found a groove and due to such, feels the sky's the limit if they continue to do what they do.
"We feel good," she said. "We feel if we beat the teams we should, then beat Sherwood, we have a shot at a league championship."
Meanwhile, it's back to the drawing board for Forest Grove, who's lost two straight since last weekend's big win over McMinnville. But in spite of their losing stretch, Lumpkin said his team remains up to the challenge at hand and believes there are plenty of wins in their future if they play to their capabilities.
"I think the girls are fine," said the coach. "It's disappointing, especially to lose at home, but they understand that there's not a team in our league we can't beat, and there's not a team in our league that can't beat us. So as we come around to the last six games, we need to just execute, because when we do, we're good. So we just need to find that consistency."
In addition to Smith, Knapp scored 13 for Liberty, while Robbins added six points and grabbed seven boards.
Forest Grove was led by Dominguez who tallied nine points, while Grosse scored eight.
The Vikings are off until Feb. 1, when the host McMinnville at 5:45 p.m. at Forest Grove High.
Liberty hosts Newberg, Jan. 30, at 5:45 p.m. at Liberty High School, and will travel to Century, Feb. 1, also at 5:45 p.m. at Century High School.
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