Liberty girls lose tough playoff battle with Jesuit, 40-32
Style points go right out the window when it comes to exorcizing second-round playoff demons.
When two desperate, hungry girls basketball teams duke it out for the right to advance to the Chiles Center it's by any means necessary.
Led by its unflappable floor general Anna Fanelli and a senior crew that's seemingly seen it all, Jesuit fended off an indefatigable Liberty team in the fourth quarter and pulled out a 40-32 win at the Knight Center on Saturday. Jesuit advances to the Class 6A quarterfinals on Thursday against Benson at 6:30 p.m. at the Chiles Center. For Jesuit, a squad that's suffered through the cruelty of coming up a postseason win shy of the quarterfinals twice the past two years, that privation was the final push needed to break through to the elite eight.
"It was all about grit and intensity and who wants it more," Jesuit senior guard Savannah Corradini said. "There was so much hunger for this game. We've been fighting for this position for three years. We've been on Liberty's side too when we lost to Clackamas (in the second round last year). We didn't want to go into our locker room feeling the same way. We just really wanted it."
It was far from easy. Liberty made sure of that, especially in the second half. It wasn't always calm either as the Falcons brought the frenetic scrap right to Jesuit's front door, playing with an underdog grit that nearly pushed No. 11 Liberty to an upset victory on the road.
"I'm super proud of the girls, top-to-bottom they laid it out on the line and that's what it makes it hurt so bad," Liberty head coach Melanie Wagoner said. "At the same time, they gave themselves a chance and that's all you ask for in any playoff game.
Liberty fell behind 10-2 in the first quarter and trailed 26-17 at the half as the Crusaders made four three-pointers against the Falcons' 2-3 zone and had seven field goals in the paint thanks to second-chance opportunities and opportunistic transition play.
Yet, Liberty lifted itself off the mat in the third, going on an 8-0 run in the first two and minutes of the second half to pull within 26-24. Junior post Clara Robbins did a great job of executing the principle of verticality, contesting Jesuit's drives without fouling, and didn't just force misses, but grabbed the board and outletted the basketball quickly to Liberty's guards. Taylin Smith and Livia Knapp, who were able to get the ball on the run and operate freely in the open floor where they did damage getting to the rim or pulling up for midrange jumpers. Knapp and Smith combined for 11 of Liberty's 13 third quarter points. And while Corradini and Elsa Hookland each hit threes to stem the tide for Jesuit, there was no doubt Liberty righted itself in the third and set itself up for a dramatic fourth quarter, trailing just 32-28.
"The girls really showed they are confident and they are a good team," Wagoner said. "We knew we didn't play well in the first half, so it was a matter of starting to play our game. We needed to step it up on defense and rebound better, and we did that."
But the moxie, effort and sheer determination of the Crusaders far outweighed any bouts of poor shooting or fitful offense in the second half. Jesuit, after years of watching the state tournament from the Chiles Center stands, wouldn't go as anything less than full participants. Another second round exit simply would not be accepted. But the Falcons wouldn't go away. Robbins' jump hook to begin the fourth quarter pulled Liberty within 32-30. The momentum, which Jesuit once threatened to run away with in the first half, was fully the Falcons'. So, to stop the bleeding, the Crusaders called Liberty's bluff. With the Falcons sitting back in their 2-3 zone, Fanelli simply dribbled the basketball well beyond the three-point line, dodging occasional swiping Liberty defenders, passing the ball to a teammate along the wing occasionally, only to get it back for more stationary bouncing of the orange up top. Nearly four minutes drained off the clock before the Falcons were able to coerce the Crusaders into a miss inside, still down just two but with half the period wasted.
"At that point, a shot clock would've been awesome," Wagoner said. "Jesuit was ready for the game to be over. They weren't looking to score. They weren't attacking because we were doing what we needed to do and getting out (in transition). Unfortunately, you can hold the ball for four or five minutes at any point. They didn't really have to score. We even made a couple of stops that we needed in the fourth and had a chance more than once to tie the game. We had them on their heels."
The stagnation was a sage call by Jesuit head coach Jason Lowery. Any flow to a game that was up-and-down for three quarters evaporated, which was exactly what the Crusaders craved. Fanelli scored on a sweet left-handed dribble drive to the rim to go up 34-30 while Liberty committed a turnover and missed its next three field goal attempts. The Crusaders' patience defused the flying Falcons who couldn't find the same offensive rhythm that carried them in the third. Other than Robbins' field goal to begin the fourth, Liberty didn't score another point the rest of the way.
"We had to be really smart," Corradini said. "We wanted to get the best shot that we could, the best shot that we wanted and the one we knew was going to go in. It helped calm us down."
Still, Liberty somehow stayed alive. Jesuit missed the front end of a one-and-one scenario at the free throw line with 1:12 left in the fourth and Robbins willed home a contested layup to cut the Crusaders' advantage to 34-32 with 48 seconds to go. However, Jesuit senior Rachel Hickey, facing another one-and-one, made two at the charity stripe to make it 36-32. Then Fanelli flummoxed Knapp into a tough missed two that Jesuit corralled off the glass. Fanelli, who Lowery said is the best point guard he's ever coached, calmly made two at the free throw line to push Jesuit's lead to 38-32 with 32 seconds left. Following two Falcons misses at the line, Fanelli added more free throw for good measure.
"It wasn't pretty, but it feels so good," Corradini said. "(Fanelli) is one of the greatest leaders ever. She told us 'Guys, this is not the time to get down on ourselves' even when we weren't playing to the best of our abilities. That had a huge influence."
And for the Falcons, a highly successful season which included a co-league championships and a trip to the state playoffs comes to an end. But while a "win" in any one's book, Liberty would rather still be playing, and they were oh so close to doing just that.
"We got really close, but it was tough to get over that hump," said Wagoner. "The girls know we could've had it. There were times when we had our game going and were playing our game, executing. The kids did what they needed to do to win, it's just a matter of a few more shots bouncing our way."
Corradini hit two threes for six points and Hookland had five points. Hickey finished with eight points including two third quarter threes while Kailynn Tuck and Bella Mori both had five. Robbins led Liberty with eight points while Knapp had seven and Smith chipped in six.