Patriots succumb to Liberty's third-quarter surge in district final

By Cody Thorn
The Examiner

Truman put itself in a position to tie the Class 6 District 15 championship game in the final seconds.

Instead, the Patriots committed a turnover and host Liberty pulled away at the free-throw line to win 58-51 on Friday.

The win was the 11th straight for No. 6-ranked Liberty, which will battle Staley in the first round of the playoffs. Meanwhile, the loss ended the Patriots’ season at 19-7 and kept them from reaching the postseason for the first time since the 2007-08 season. The Steve Moore-led Patriots finished fourth that year in Class 5.

The turning point of Friday’s title game came in the final minute as Najee Williams almost willed the Patriots back from a nine-point deficit early in the fourth quarter.

With a little more than a minute to play, Liberty (23-3) led 53-47, but Williams drew a foul with 1:12 to go. The senior went to the line and sank both free throws to make it a four-point game.

Liberty was fouled with a minute left and went to the line but missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Patriots went down the court and Williams was fouled again, this time with 45.1 seconds. The star cooly knocked down two more free throws to make it 53-51.

Another foul on the Patriots sent the Blue Jays back to the line. Bennett Stirtz hit the first and missed the second, still leaving it a one-possession game.

Truman got the ball past mid-court before coach Rod Briggs called a timeout with 34.8 seconds remaining. Down by three, the Patriots had a chance to tie it but instead an errant pass sailed out of bounds.

“We were trying to get Max (Black) a 3-pointer and we didn’t come through with it,” Briggs said. “Najee was on the screen and if Max didn’t have a 3, he would make one more pass to Najee.”

The costly turnover led to a foul and another free throw by the Blue Jays. A missed 3-pointer by the Patriots followed. Twice over the final 13 seconds, Liberty was fouled and it hit three of four – sandwiched around another missed shot by Truman – to account for the final score.

“We got a little wild at the end and we could’ve scored a basket or two to make it interesting, but they gave everything they had,” Briggs said of his players.

While the last-minute events caused heartbreak for Truman, the turning point actually came in the third.

Liberty took a 44-37 lead into the fourth after the Patriots yielded a 12-1 run after regaining the lead over Liberty.

The Patriots never could fully recover from the barrage late in the third quarter despite the best efforts of Williams, who scored a game-high 26 points in his final high school game.

Each team held the lead three times in the third quarter, after Liberty went into the break up 25-24 on Stirtz’s buzzer-beater to end the first half.

Quincy Scott gave Truman the lead out of the gate in the third and then a 3-pointer from Williams made it 29-28 with six minutes left. After Stirtz, who finished with 25 points, made a basket, Williams answered with a layup to make it 31-30.

The next three minutes turned momentum in Liberty’s favor. Javion Byers hit a 3-pointer in the corner to give Liberty a 33-31 edge – and, as it turned out, Truman’s last lead. Maddux Bristow was fouled and hit one of two free throws for the Patriots with 5:15 left.

Clinging to a one-point lead, Byers scored on a layup with 3:44 left. Truman turned the ball over and Liberty turned to Byers, a senior, who knocked down another 3-pointer. Javin Shaw scored to make it 40-32 and Stirtz’s bucket with 2 minutes to play in the third made it 42-32, which led to another timeout by Truman.

Byers scored eight of his nine points in that run.

“The key was that third-quarter run,” Briggs said. “We didn’t rebound and we tried to change to a zone and we never got into it. We allowed dribble-penetration. I think I will think of that all offseason. We left some points on the table and missed bunnies (jump shots) here and there. We defended well most of the game except for that stretch in the third quarter.”

The loss ended the high school playing career of Williams, Black, Prosper Obasi, Ryan Swartz, Scott, Quincy Potts and Runey Hernandez. Five of those players were regulars in the playing rotation for a team that entered the season with zero returning starters from a team that won 16 games the year prior.

Next year, Truman will have only two players back who saw time in this game: Griffen Hernandez – Runey’s little brother – and Bristow.

“It will be a little different next year,” Briggs said. “This group helped bring us back to where Truman should be every year and we got some decent young talent coming.”