LEAVITTSBURG - Two of the best players in the All-American Conference have never played a game of one-on-one, but Friday proved it sure would be fun if they did.
Liberty's Asim Pleas and LaBrae's Peyton Aldridge have squared off a lot over the years, and what might have been their last showdown was one of the best.
Aldridge and the Vikings made a few more plays down the stretch and pulled away from the Leopards in a 71-56 AAC, National Division victory.
Aldridge, a 6-foot-8 senior, was dominant for a large portion of the game, finishing with 33 points. Pleas, who scored 27, spread most of his points out but poured it on in the fourth quarter, when Liberty trimmed a 14-point lead down to four with 4:46 remaining.
The Vikings' complimentary players stepped up in the final minutes, when Liberty (4-4) switched to a full-court press defense. Aldridge brought the ball up court and used his length to pass over top the Leopards' defense, finding open teammates on three straight plays for layups. That allowed LaBrae (6-2, 2-1) to extend its lead to double digits and, despite one final rally by Liberty, pull away.
"Down the stretch, we're looking for teams to press us," Vikings coach Chad Kiser said. "We love that. With our height and our size over the top and the other guys running, most teams won't (press) us. But when it came down the stretch, they had to do it, and that's what we're looking for."
The crowd also got what it was looking for: a back-and-forth battle between two of the elite players in the area.
With both teams struggling from the field, Aldridge and Pleas said they felt the need to become more aggressive. Aldridge took over in the third quarter, scoring 16 of the Vikings' 18 points, including 10 straight. That allowed LaBrae to take a 46-35 lead into the fourth quarter, which is when Pleas went off. The 6-1 senior guard single handedly led Liberty on an 8-0 run. He hit two 3s and a runner in the lane over Aldridge's outstretched arms in a matter of 45 seconds to pull Liberty within four. That set up LaBrae's final push.
The two didn't say much to each other during the face-to-face exchanges, but it was obvious their play was fueling each other.
"It's been like that every year since seventh grade," said Pleas of how long the friendly rivalry goes back. "We have a mutual respect for each other. I know how good of a player he is, so ever since seventh grade, we've been going at it. This was the last one. It's tough that I didn't get it, but there's a chance we could see them come playoff time."
Indeed, both teams are in Division III and could meet once more in the district tournament. If that day comes, Liberty is going to have to find another way to contain Aldridge. He dominated the boards, grabbing a team-high 17 rebounds, and aside from shooting 12 of 23 from the field, he was able to quickly pick apart Liberty's defense in the final minutes to turn a close game into a blowout.
"They started to make a little bit of a run, and when they started to get some momentum, I felt like I had to step up and knock down a couple big shots," he said. "It helped settle things down."
After the game, Aldridge praised Pleas, a longtime competitor.
"He's a great player," Aldridge said. "It's always fun going against him. There's a little battle between us. Two good teams battling and two good players battling. It was fun."
But they really never played one-on-one, just for fun?
"No, but I would win if we did," Pleas said with a laugh.
Aldridge took the high road.
"I don't know," he said of a potential matchup. "He's a pretty good player."