Big games are for big time players — and Liberty has a lot of them.
With first place on the line, the league undefeated Falcons traveled to Forest Grove and showed the second place Vikings what's up, defeating the home Viks 67-35 in front of a nearly packed gym Friday night, Jan. 31, at Forest Grove High School.
Taylin Smith led Liberty with 21 points and scored from both inside and out, from the beginning of the game to the end. But while impressive, the junior guard wasn't alone, for the Falcons got outstanding performances from Livia Knapp, Breeze Bartle, Bella Hamel, and even Savy Castillo, who came in late and scored 10 quick points to finish Forest Grove off with the type of never-quit style they're not-so-slowly becoming known for.
"They play together, and that's the thing I'm most proud about," Liberty head coach Melanie Wagoner said. "All of them. We need everybody and they all did what they could to participate and give us a boost, and I think as a group they came through tonight."
They were especially good early, making their first eight shots en route to an 18-8 first quarter lead. Whether inside with Clara Robbins and/or Bella Hamel, or outside with Smith, Knapp or Talia Kahakai-Wyatt, the Falcons meant business and the Vikings found that out the hard way early on.
"Liberty's a very good team," Forest Grove head coach Dan Lumpkin said. "They have a lot of talent and they can shoot the ball, and they came out lights out.
"They weren't easy ones either. Several were contested threes or runners, so defensively I thought we were forcing the shots we wanted, they just knocked them down."
Meanwhile, Forest Grove just couldn't find a groove. After scoring eight points in the first quarter, the Viks managed just two in the second and appeared flustered by the Falcons pressure in the half-court.
"We were doing a good job taking care of the ball, we were just too quick at times shooting it," Lumpkin said. "We just got kind of frantic with our shots, so at the half we just told the girls to relax and play with confidence, and they did."
After Liberty took a 33-10 lead to the half, and following Smith's four quick points to start the third quarter, Forest Grove slowed down a bit and were at least able to string together baskets. After a Hamel basket gave the Falcons a 39-10 lead, the Vikings played Liberty nearly even the remainder of the third quarter thanks to baskets from Olivia Grosse, Kayleen Dominguez, and two late 3-pointers from Amanda Rebsom and Ashlynn Dawson. In addition, they were outscored just 34-25 in the second half — something Lumpkin to a bit of solace from after-the-fact.
"That showed us we can play with them," the coach said. "I feel like we can match up with them. We have some athletes, we have some length, we just need to play with confidence and do that for the whole game. And if we do, we'll put ourselves in a position to succeed.
With the win, Liberty improved to 5-0 in conference and put themselves two games clear of their nearest competitors, Forest Grove, McMinnville and Sherwood. Considering such, you'd have thought the Falcons would've approached this game with a bit more urgency than that of the previous four league contests. But Wagoner was quick to debunk such a theory, rather pointing to a similar sense of urgency for all of their contests, despite what may or may not be on the line.
"We talked about this as just another game that we needed to be focused for and ready to go," she said. "It's one game in league and there are a lot more to go. I don't think we're looking at it with any extra weight or any less weight than what's right in front of us."
Smith however said, that while they didn't necessarily have a different approach, they definitely feel like they have something to prove.
"People still don't believe in us," she said. "We feel like we have something to prove every game. I feel like we're overlooked sometimes, and because of that we have a chip on our shoulder every game."
"But we're confident in this team and we all believe."
And they should. Eight of Liberty's nine girls scored points against Forest Grove, and all scored at least four. Wagoner pointed to that depth as an asset, and spoke further to it as a means of developing different and diverse lineups.
"We've had multiple starting lineups, but we've settled-in to one we're comfortable with," the coach said. "But even that isn't necessarily the five 'best' kids on the court, it just at times can be a good rhythm.
"We have a lot of kids that can score the ball and a lot of kids that are athletic and can play defense. So we can mix it up. It's a nice thing to say, that it's tough to pick a starting lineup."
In addition to Smith's 21 points, the Falcons got 11 points and seven rebounds from Bartle, 10 points from Castillo, nine from Knapp, four points and nine boards from Hamel, and four apiece from Kahakai-Wyatt, Clara Robbins and Alyssa Chronister.
Forest Grove was led by Lily Everson, while they got seven points and six rebounds from Ally Hammond, six points from Rebsom, four apiece from Dominguez, Dawson, and Katie Ellington, and two points and five rebounds from Grosse.
Liberty will next play at Newberg Tuesday, Feb. 4, while Forest Grove travels to McMinnville Friday, Feb. 7, for a game with the Grizzlies.
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