LIBERTY - Liberty coach Dan Bubon isn't known for sugarcoating his team's play, no matter the result, but following Liberty's All-American Conference, National Division matchup with Newton Falls Friday night, he looked at the positive side of things.
Although the Leopards totaled a season-low 12 points at halftime and trailed by as many as 13 points late in the third quarter, they still managed to come back with a huge fourth-quarter effort to beat the Tigers, 45-38.
Liberty (12-8) outscored Newton Falls (11-9, 3-7 AAC National), 16-1, in the final 8 minutes, which was a part of a 21-1 run over the final 8:46 of the game.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Newton Falls’ Ozzie Hawkins (10)?goes over the back of Liberty’s JaShaun Whitman chasing after the ball that he shot and Whitman blocked. Newton Falls’ Adam Czerniak (15)?and Liberty’s Lynn Bowden (10) follow the play.
"As ugly as that was - and that was ugly basketball, there's no question about it - that might be the best win we've had all year," Bubon said. "We just never gave in. We just played defense the whole way through and eventually our offense gave us enough to take the lead."
In the first half, the Leopards struggled against the Tigers' full-court traps and the 2-3 zone in the halfcourt, shooting just 19 percent from the floor. Liberty changed tactics for the second half and it worked, as the Leopards scored more in the third (17) than in the entire first half.
Liberty senior Asim Pleas said it came down to creating high-percentage shots against the zone.
"We knew we had to get a better shot selection," said Pleas, who finished with a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds. "We weren't getting the looks we wanted. We were just a little bit stagnate, so we knew we just had to attack the zone and just getting better looks. We knew if we got enough good shots that some of them would fall."
To spark the run in the fourth quarter, substitute Leslie Carter got things started, banking a shot in the lane and draining a 3-pointer on Liberty's first two possessions. He also made a pair of free throws with a 4:46 remaining in the game to pull the Leopards to within one, 37-36.
This set up Lynn Bowden's pull-up jumper at the 2:28 mark that gave the Leopards the lead for good.
Carter, who has worked his way up from the JV team after not playing the previous season, finished with nine points. Bowden had 11 - all in the second half.
"This is great for his confidence," Bubon said of Carter. "In a big game like this, he got our offense going, and we need that. People are going to take Asim away, they're going to try and take Lynn (Bowden) away and we need another scorer. With Cam Clark in foul trouble, we were just searching for anybody, and Leslie made some big shots."
Known for their shooting ability, the Tigers missed their last 13 shots of the game, including a 0-of-11 mark from the field in the fourth quarter. Newton Falls coach Roy Sembach said he had an inkling when the Tigers led by only 10 at halftime that it could go wrong for his team.
"I don't think we played a very good game the whole night, and I almost saw it (the comeback) coming," Newton Falls coach Roy Sembach said. "It was one of those games. You could just sense that things weren't going right. Zero for whatever it was, a lot of those were good looks. You got to step up and make them."
As for Bubon, he couldn't complain about his team's comeback and being able to hold the lead late.
"This is a preview of what our tournament is going to be like," Bubon said. "I was really happy with a lot of the stuff we did even though aesthetically, it had to be an ugly game to watch."