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Having endured criticism from many quarters this past season, the Liberty Minutemen turned naysayers into believers with their title run.
Facing crunch-time, the Minutemen ran a streak of six near-flawless quarters of basketball to claim the Seminole District regular-season crown.
The Minutemen clinched their title over a two-day run. First, they pummelled Rustburg, 72-41, with a break-out second-half performance. That win came on Thursday night on Liberty’s home court.
That victory over the Red Devils knotted Liberty with Brookville, with each team standing at 10-2 in district play. The tie-breaker game was played at neutral site Staunton River, this past Friday evening, when the Minutemen came out with the same fire as they’d had the night before and avenged their only two losses of the regular season.
Liberty squared off against a Rustburg team that had a world of momentum at its back. Playing on Senior Night and in front of a packed home gym, the Minutemen’s future was in doubt, as they led by only four points at the intermission.
Ryan Nichols played like a man a’fire and was nearly unstoppable. His play seemed to inspire his teammates as they built up a 20 point lead in the third quarter, and the Rusties were done for.
He also teamed up with Kordero Thompson for a dozen rebounds.
The win over Brookville was the finest of the year for the team. Every player who hit the court did his job, and did it well.
While some might be concerned about playing Brookville the night after the Rustburg game, Liberty Coach Jeff Monroe seemingly was not. “We were built for this,” he said.
Carlton Payne may very well have played the game of his career. Sure he had 24 points, to lead all scorers. Yes, he had a handful of blocked or redirected shots.
More importantly, the big fellow was clearly The Man on the court.
He asserted himself and provided leadership at the perfect opportunity.
During the crucial third quarter, Payne did the following: put back his own shot, nailed a three-pointer, pegged a 6’ turn-around jumper, blasted another jumper from just inside the arc, hit an 8’ bank shot and caused a pair of steals.
His two free throws at the end of the quarter established a Liberty lead that it would never relinquish.
“He played his butt off,” said Monroe summing up Payne’s performance in succinct fashion.
Chris Harmon was always the threat that the Bees had to respect. The senior playmaker keyed the transition game at which Liberty seemed to excel.
“I told (Payne and Harmon) before the game that big-time players make names for themselves in games like this one.”
Obviously, the tandem took the words of the coach to heart.
Tyler Gilchrist, standing slightly below six-feet tall, took on 6’ 6” scoring machine Logan Thomas.
The pesky senior more than held his own. He buzzed around Thomas while on the perimeter and deftly handed off coverage in the paint to some of the more height-endowed Minutemen.
Anthony Reynolds helped pad the Liberty lead in the fourth quarter as his self-putback, and conversion of a three-point opportunity, gave the Minutemen a 46-39 edge with under two minutes to play.
Reynolds finished up with 15 points.
Nichols and Thompson contributed in a variety of ways. Nichols is becoming one of the better rebounders in the district and shows a great vision of the playing court.
In the later minutes of the game, Nichols and Gilchrist were subbing for each other seemingly every few seconds. Monroe wanted Nichols in for his scoring acumen and Gilchrist for his defensive tenacity.
Thompson is a soothing, cooling influence on the team. He can also come through in a big way when it is needed.
With Brookville putting the Minutemen on the line toward the end of the game, the Minutemen looked unflappable. Payne, Reynolds and Thompson combined for a 9-for-14 performance at the charity stripe to quash any Bee aspirations of a comeback.
Thompson had 11 points while Harmon had 8.
-Coach Monroe dislocated his pinky finger stopping a loose ball during the first quarter. The injury seemed to take no luster off his pride in the victory.
- Since the game was played on a neutral court, the Minutemen had their own net-cutting ceremony when they returned to their gym that evening. The spontaneous event was attended by friends, fans and family.
-The win did the following for the Minutemen:
a) gave them the Seminole crown for the first time since 1999.
b) gave them a first-round bye in the District tournament.
c) gave them a first round bye in the Regionals. All they need is to win the second round game in regionals (against the winner of Southern Valley #2 vs. Blue Ridge #2) and they are off to states.
d) ensured that, should they face R.E. Lee again, it won’t be until the Regional final, should they each advance that far.