Throughout last night's Class 2A West region boys basketball quarterfinal, host Liberty continually took advantage of its size advantage in the middle. By game's end, the strategy propelled the Lions to new heights.
Led by 6-foot-7 Andrew Martin and 6-4 Josh Vittek, Liberty used a scoring outburst at the end of the third quarter to take control, then cruised to a 76-66 win over No. 2 seed North Hagerstown to earn its first ever trip to the regional semifinals.
Facing a team whose tallest player was 6-3, Martin finished with 20 points, 12 rebounds and eight blocks. Vittek added 20 points and 10 blocks. Along with point guard Frank Sisolak (12 points) and forward Dustin Walters (11), both played key roles in helping the Lions shoot 65 percent from the field in the second half.
"We knew going into this game that we'd have a size advantage," said Liberty coach Steve Johnson. "Our big guys stepped up. Andrew and Josh Vittek stepped up big time."
Liberty (15-9) advanced to tomorrow's region semifinals, where the Lions will face either Walkersville at home or Fort Hill on the road.
The game was tight throughout the first half, with North Hagerstown (17-6) using a brief spurt at the end of the first half to pull ahead by five at the break.
Jarrell Rodriguez led the Hubs with 19 points, while Bernard Harris - who entered the night averaging nearly 20 points per game - finished with 14. Tied at 44 midway through the third quarter, however, the Lions seized control.
Martin's putback and Vittek's layup seconds later started a 9-0 run that put Liberty ahead, 53-44. When Sisolak than nailed a three-pointer from the top of the key with time winding down in the quarter, the lead had ballooned to 12.
"Basically, we just wanted to come out and pop it inside - see what they had against us," said Martin. "We wanted to pound it inside and try to get their big men out of the game early."
With the Hubs in foul trouble, the Lions then spent the bulk of the fourth quarter at the free-throw line. The spread would have been wider if not for Liberty's uncharacteristically poor foul shooting.
With a chance to pull away, the Lions began the fourth quarter 2-for-9 from the line, and were 24-for-43 for the night.
"We missed more free throws this game than we had missed all week long, including practice," said Johnson. "We knew it would come down to free throws, and toward the end we put a few in."
The Lions have been on a roll of late, first beating Century to earn a share of the Carroll County title, then upending Francis Scott Key in the opening round of the tournament.
"These guys have won some big games down the stretch," said Johnson. "It's an emotional high, but it's not over yet."
Martin echoed his coach's sentiments, and said players realize the job is far from complete.
"We just want to come out and set the mark for years to come," said Martin. "Hopefully, if it keeps going the way it is, everything should turn out great."