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The Falcons' Bella Hamel scores 13 points and grabs eight rebounds in gritty win over Cougars.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Liberty's Bella Hamel (23) during the second round of the OSAA 6A girls basketball playoffs against Canby at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Ore., on Friday, March 6, 2020.
It's been one year since the Liberty girls basketball team was eliminated from the state basketball playoffs. Since that narrow loss to Jesuit in last year's second round, it's all been about getting back to that point so as to right what they thought all along was an obvious wrong — and they did that tonight.

The Falcons defeated Canby of the Three Rivers League 52-42 in front of a packed crowd Friday night, March 6, at Liberty High School. Led by the grit and determination of senior wing Bella Hamel, along with a tenacious and opportunistic defense, Liberty had just enough to hold the visiting Cougars off on what was a difficult night for both teams to score the ball.

"They were tough, and they're a tough team," Liberty head coach Melanie Wagoner said about Canby. "They earned their position here getting to the second round, and anybody's going to be a battle at this point."

Liberty struggled more so than at any point of the year scoring points, missing frequently from the outside, while equally struggling to get the ball to their posts on the block. But where there's a will there's a way, and Hamel was that way when the Falcons needed her most — despite foul trouble early in the game.

"They were really up in us, while other teams have given us more room," Hamel said. "But we eventually got it inside and to our wings, and I was able to get some scores inside."

Hamel, new to the team this season, scored 13 points while grabbing eight rebounds. She obviously wasn't around for last year's playoff defeat, but said she was more than aware of what this team was using as motivation for this season.

"This was something this team really wanted," Hamel said. "I'm new to the team, but I could feel it and now that we've gotten here, we're not going to stop."

Meanwhile, Canby had nothing to be ashamed of in defeat. Despite going up against the No. 4-ranked team in the state, on their home floor and in front of the raucous Liberty faithful, the Cougars never trailed by more than seven until the final minute, and had opportunities late in the second half to get a lead.

"This team isn't going to quit," Canby head coach Chuck Knight said. "They're fighters and they competed the whole game, but sometimes you just have to make shots and we weren't able to do that tonight, and I think that was the difference."

Liberty looked good to start the game, jumping out to a 5-0 lead thanks to quick baskets from Talia Kahakai –Wyatt and Taylin Smith, who hit a 3-pointer to end the first quarter and put the Falcons ahead 14-8. But the Cougars clawed their way back to within three points after freshman Allie Mead scored five straight to start the second.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Liberty's Livia Knapp (10) during the second round of the OSAA 6A girls basketball playoffs against Canby at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Ore., on Friday, March 6, 2020.
The teams seem to trade momentum from there, with Liberty building an eight point lead, Canby pulling back within four, then the Falcons again growing the lead to eight before Mead hit another three to end the half with the Cougars trailing 25-20.

The first half was very physical, with both teams asserting their defensive will on the other, which led to Liberty getting into foul trouble. Kahakai-Wyatt went to the bench with three fouls early in the second quarter, then when Hamel picked-up her fourth foul just two minutes into the second half, things were looking a bit dire for the home Falcons. But Wagoner didn't blink, maintaining her confidence in her bench to hold the fort while two of her primary contributors were forced to ride the pine.

"We typically go eight deep, but I'm comfortable going nine," the Liberty coach said. "We got into a little foul trouble, but that's okay and I'm pretty comfortable with us getting other players in and everybody contributing with some big minutes. When it comes down to a close game, I feel good about the fact that our kids have been able to settle a little bit, get a little rest and finish out a game."

While Liberty struggle with fouls, Canby was forced to face a little adversity of their own when standout post Nicole Mickelson left the game with 5:11 left in the third quarter due to an apparent knee injury after falling hard to the floor on a fast break lay-up attempt. She returned to the game a handful of minutes later, but her presence was missed against Liberty posts Clara Robbins and Breeze Bartle.

"When your best player goes down, that's a lot to overcome," Knight said. "We certainly didn't quit though. We battled and if we'd have hit a couple shots we might've been okay."

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Liberty's Bella Hamel (23) attacks Canby's Nicole Mickelson during the second round of the OSAA 6A girls basketball playoffs against Canby at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Ore., on Friday, March 6, 2020.Mickelson hit one of two free throw attempts to end the third quarter and pull the Cougars within 33-29 to start the fourth, and got within three with possession a couple of minutes into the final stanza. But after a missed 3-point attempt that would've tied the game, Hamel took over, scoring six straight to put Liberty back up by seven, 39-32.

"We just couldn't get over that hump," Knight said. "Their defense is difficult and they don't really let you run a lot of stuff. You just have to let your kids try to make plays, and we did, but we just couldn't get that one shot to get us to the lead."

They did however get back within 41-38 after back-to-back 3-pointers by Zoe Thompson with 1:55 left, but Liberty scored the next five thanks to three Hamel free throws and a lay-in by Taylin Smith, that for all intents and purposes ended the game and sent the Falcons to the state quarterfinals.

"I'm just super proud of this team," Wagoner said. "These girls put so much work to get where they are and they showed so much maturity to compete. It was a hard fought game and there were moments where the momentum when Canby's way, but the girls kept their head up and fought through it, made some big shots and got some big stops. And that makes me proud."

And for Canby the season comes to an end. But while down, they're certainly not out — at least as far as their coach is concerned.

PMG PHOTO: CHRISTOPHER OERTELL - Liberty's Taylin Smith (0) during the second round of the OSAA 6A girls basketball playoffs against Canby at Liberty High School in Hillsboro, Ore., on Friday, March 6, 2020."First, credit to Liberty because that's a really good team," Knight said. "But I couldn't be more proud of my girls. In the summer we thought that we had a shot to be real good. These girls play well together and are very unselfish. Nicole (Mickelson) was fighting injuries all year and that probably kept us from being as good as we could've been, but I felt like this team could play with anyone and we did.

"We had opportunities to win this game, but I'm still really proud of this team."

Liberty scorers included: Hamel 13, Smith 10, Kahakai-Wyatt 8, Robbins 8, Alexa Smith 5, Alyssa Chronister 4, Livia Knapp 2, Breeze Bartle 2.

Canby scorers included: Thompson 14, Mead 8, Arika Evans 6, Naarai Gomez 5, Mickelson 5, Ally Odell 4.

Liberty now advances to the state tournament and will play Mountainside at 3:15 p.m. on Wednesday, March 11, in the quarterfinals at the Chiles Center on the campus of the University of Portland.

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