By Greg Morse (For OzarksSportsZone.com)
A low scoring affair quickly turned hot as Liberal outlasted Thomas Jefferson to claim their second consecutive district title.
“It was 1985 when we won a district title at Liberal, and then a 16-year gap before winning again in 2001, then another 17 year gap before winning last year and to win again this year, it’s pretty special,” said head coach Travis Walton.
Both teams went basket-for-basket throughout the first quarter. The Liberal Bulldogs scored 11 points, led by Senior Weston Sprenkle who scored nine of those points himself. The Thomas Jefferson Cavaliers scored 10 points, with Sophomore Dhruv Gheewala scoring six of those points.
The Cavaliers opened the second quarter by going on a 6-2 run. They would go on to score a total of 14 points in the second quarter, to Liberal’s 11. Both teams actively spread the ball around for most of the quarter. TJ was led by junior Chase Kellenberger who scored six of those points, but sophomores Kelsey Atteberry, Gheewala, and junior Dylan Dean Heck all had a basket of their own. Senior Aaron Wells also went 2-for-2 at the line, being sure to take advantage of his opportunities as well.
Liberal also shared the wealth by having four players score at least two points. Seniors Dalton Hendrix and Colby Selvey each had a basket, while Juniors Colten Slinker and Tyler West had three points and four points, respectfully. Altogether it added up to a close, but low-scoring game going into halftime as the defenses were dominating.
“We’ve been grinding it out,” said Selvey, “All year we just said, ‘Let’s get to the district tournament and show them what we’re worth’ because we didn’t get a lot of respect and now we showed them what the real deal is.”
Defense continued to dominate, while individual players started to bring the offense. In the third quarter the Cavaliers scored multiple 3s and Junior Brock Conklin scoring five. For Liberal Selvey scored five points and his teammates, Slinker and Senior Gabe Daniels each scored a 3-pointer.
Entering the fourth the low-scoring defensive match gave way to an explosive back-and-forth across the hardwood. Liberal posted 22 points alone in large part to Slinker who scored 9 points including going 5-for-6 from the line.
“We knew we were going to win,” said Slinker, “The last time we played TJ we played four overtimes and only lost by single digits so [we knew we could do it.]”
After Liberal went on a 6-0 run in the middle of the fourth quarter, the Cavaliers found themselves trying to play catchup. However, with less than a minute left to play and the game tied at 47, Liberal went on another 6-0 run in just nine seconds, pulling them ahead 53-47.
Just when it seemed the Bulldogs were headed for certain victory, Thomas Jefferson’s Junior Dylan Dean Heck nailed a 3 pointer, bringing the score 53-50 and just 30 seconds left. However, the Cavaliers were unable to take advantage of a few miscues in the final half-minute and Liberal’s defense held on to bring the final score to 56-50 for their second consecutive district title.
“Defensively we played well, we rebounded really well. We kept the peddle down, especially at the end, and really wore them out and we kept going. Our defensive effort really won it for us. We look at the postseason as being seven games. This was game three, now we get to go play game four. We’re going to try and get through game four and go play game five, which many teams don’t get to do,” added Walton.