Young, restless Tigers top Liberty

Tribune Chronicle / Joe Simon Newton Falls’ Preston Rapczak, left, dribbles near the out-of-bounds line while being defended by Liberty’s Dra Rushton, right, during their game in Liberty. Rapczak scored 21 to lead the Tigers to a 58-52 victory.

LIBERTY — There were some technical difficulties prior to the Liberty-Newton Falls boys basketball game Friday, and “The Star Spangled Banner” wasn’t being played over the loud speaker as expected.

No matter. After a few moments of awkward silence, the Liberty students started singing the national anthem, and then everyone else joined in to create an ensemble by the entire crowd.

If only the basketball teams had that type of unison.

Two young teams searching for their way showed flashes of brilliance followed by large chunks of sloppy play. In the end, the Tigers found a way to cut down on turnovers and make some big plays in the clutch for a 58-52 victory in an All-American Conference, Blue Tier matchup.

The turnovers (20 for Newton Falls, 18 for Liberty) and poor shooting were somewhat of a familiar site for both coaches but so were the moments of impressive play.

“If we could ever learn to eliminate the unforced error, we have the chance to be really good,” Newton Falls coach Roy Sembach said. “We’re as young as could be. We play two freshmen, three sophomores and two juniors every game, along with a couple seniors, and if we can ever get to the point where we just don’t give possessions away, we can be really good.”

The good and the bad were evident Friday.

An early 10-2 lead by the Tigers (8-6, 6-2) quickly evaporated. Liberty’s Ezell Brown seemed unstoppable in scoring 17 first-half points and giving the Leopards (3-9, 2-6) a 26-22 lead at halftime. But as has been the case most of the season, Liberty couldn’t sustain its offense, and by the start of the third quarter, Newton Falls led, 40-37.

“You’ve gotta be able to shoot the basketball,” said Liberty coach Chris Kohl, whose Leopards shot 18-of-54 from the field, 1-for-13 on 3-pointers and 15-of-26 from the free-throw line. “You have to be able to knock down some 3s in today’s game, and we harp on foul shooting, and unfortunately we were just a little cold tonight.”

Liberty’s bright spots were Brown’s continued emergence and a solid defensive effort against Newton Falls’ Gage Friend (6-foot-8, 220) and Chris Rankin (6-4, 270). The Leopards’ downfalls were turnovers and an inability to make plays late in the fourth quarter.

They had a golden opportunity to make a run after Rankin was called for a technical foul. Dra Rushton made 2-of-3 free throws to turn what had been a nine-point Newton Falls lead into a 49-46 game with 4:02 left in the fourth quarter. Yet, the Leopards only scored six more points, and the Tigers made their free throws to seal the victory.

Liberty got 44 points from Rushton (20) and Brown (24) but only eight from the rest of the team. Newton Falls had three players reach double figures and made 6-of-18 3-pointers. Preston Rapczak scored a team-high 21, including eight in the fourth quarter.

“That brings us up a lot,” said Rapczak of the Tigers’ ability to pull away in the clutch. “We had a lot of underclassmen stepping up and making big plays on varsity.”

The Leopards ran a lot of inexperienced players onto the court as well.

At 3-9 and with a conference title out of the picture, Kohl said he wanted to see how some other players responded, and he was pleased with the showing.

“We lost, but we got better,” he said, before later adding. “As far as our effort and our gameplan … we did a pretty decent job. If our offense ever comes around, we can be a team that can be reckoned with. We’re quick, we’ve got a little bit of size and we have some guys that understand the game.”

While the teams are still putting things together, Sembach was happy the fans could join one another for a different rendition of the national anthem.

“I’ve seen once or twice where the anthem didn’t play and someone said the Pledge of Allegiance,” Sembach said. “I’ve never heard the whole crowd sing it. That’s the interesting thing about coaching. You think you’ve been around — this is my 31st year — and that you’ve seen it all. Nope. Every year, something — in fact several things happen that you’ve never encountered. It kind of keeps it fresh.”