Forest Grove boys play spoiler in 69-60 win over Liberty
No Littlefield. No playoffs. No problem for Forest Grove.
The Vikings boys defeated Liberty 69-60 in their regular season finale Thursday night, Feb. 27, at Liberty High School, and in the process beat the odds in a game that meant very little for the Viks, while the Falcons had much to play for.
Playing without injured standout Guy Littlefield, and with little more than pride on the line, Forest Grove jumped-out to a 20-6 lead and never looked back en route to what turned out to be a referendum on what the team and its players were made of.
"This was a big game for us from a pride perspective," junior forward Braden Hudgins said. "Guy (Littlefield) has been in the program for a long time and we didn't want to let him down and leave him with a loss to end his time here."
To the contrary, Liberty was playing for the postseason. With the Pacific Conference's third guaranteed playoff spot hinging on the outcome, the Falcons fought, but were never able to fully dig themselves from what would amount to an insurmountable early Vikings lead.
"Kudos to Forest Grove," Liberty head coach Brian Martin said. "They came out ready to play, hit some shots and put us in a hole quickly."
Martin went on to talk about his team's propensity to get behind early, along with the troubling aspect of such, but also spoke to their character by way of their equal propensity to fight back.
"There have been three or four games where we haven't started out quickly and dug ourselves a hole," the Liberty coach said. "I kept telling the kids, we've done this before and we can get out of it. And they kept battling to the end, but unfortunately it wasn't good enough."
With every opportunity to mail it in, it was apparent early that Forest Grove had no intention of doing so.
The Vikings (11-13, 6-6) built an early 9-2 lead thanks in large part to the inside presence of James Irvine, who tallied six of his nine total points in the first few minutes. After a Bodgan Chobu basket cut the lead to five, Forest Grove's edge grew to 10 and ultimately 11 after two Roman Miller 3-pointers, before Liberty's Jaxson Lake scored the quarter's final six points to pull the Falcons within 20-12 after one quarter.
Liberty cut that lead to four thanks to a Tyler Rockwell free throw and a quick three by junior Joey Abelsen, but sensing a comeback, the Vikings responded with seven straight points on their way to a 29-19 halftime lead.
Ayden Case, who filled-in for Littlefield at the point guard position, scored eight first-half points and the Vikings' first five of the second half to keep Liberty at bay. Case, who's played at nearly every position for Forest Grove this year, finished with 17 points and five rebounds, not to much surprise to Coach Evers.
"He's a smart kid and he knows our stuff," Evers said. "I couldn't be happier for him. He hit some big shots and was aggressive early, and he actually played pretty well the other night at Century as well."
In addition to Case, the Viks got a huge night from Hudgins, who finished with 26 points and 10 rebounds. The 6-foot-6 forward put the team on his back for much of the second half, at one point scoring 13 straight points and grabbing a handful of big rebounds en route to a 57-46 lead early into the fourth quarter.
Hudgins has shown glimpses of such dominance throughout the season, but has equally been a source of frustration for a coaching staff that's seen him disappear at times despite a wealth of potential — something Hudgins is well aware of.
"The coaches and I have talked about how I've not been performing at the level or with the consistency that I should be," Hudgins said, "and this is how I need to continue to play for the rest of my high school career."
Evers was complimentary of Hudgins' performance in the game, but was also at a loss for how to get a more consistent effort from the junior.
"The other night he seemed to have no interest in playing and had no aggressiveness whatsoever, and tonight he took the ball to the rack, knocked down some shots and played like a different person," Evers said. "It was great. If he wants to play at the next level he's going to need more of that."
Liberty (12-12, 6-6) fought back as the fourth quarter wound down, even getting as close as six points on two separate occasions. But a series of missed opportunities coupled with six consecutive missed free throws, ended their hopes of a comeback win, and ultimately a shot at this year's playoffs.
"The kids are disappointed because they wanted to go to the playoffs," Martin said, "but they got to the point where they were right on the precipice. They were right there and battled right up to the very end.
"We didn't reach our goal, but I couldn't be prouder of them."
Ultimately the Liberty coach didn't put the emphasis on this game in regards to their failure to make the playoffs, but rather a handful of smaller mistakes that led them to this point.
"There were some things we did very well throughout the season, and there were some things we weren't very good at that cost us some games," Martin said. "You can't just look at the last game, because there were some games this year that had we done some things differently, we could've won and not been in this position."
And how would Evers put a bow on this year's Vikings? Some good and some bad, but ultimately it's all love for the coach when it comes to his players.
"I love all my kids," Evers said. "This is a really nice group of kids, but it's just disappointing because I feel like when it really meant something, we just underperformed, and that's on us as coaches. We didn't get as much out of these kids that I thought we should've.
"We'll see what we can do better and try to improve on it."
Forest Grove scorers included: Hudgins 26, Case 17, Irvine 9, Lucas Ellington 5, Jake Steltenpohl 2.
Liberty scorers included: Lake 15, Chobu 2, Aidan Reitzug 12, Rockwell 10, Abelsen 5, Xanden Unciano 3, Zane Bernhard 2, Cole Smith 1.
In the wake of the Liberty defeat, Century claimed third place and earned the league's third automatic playoff berth.
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