A nationally ranked player contributed to the Liberty County High School 71-62 loss Saturday to Pace Academy in the AAA State Basketball semifinals.
The semifinal game was played at Armstrong State University in Savannah.
The Panthers found themselves down at the end of the first quarter 24-17. Head coach Julian Stokes said the team had a hard time guarding Pace Academy’s top player, Wendell Carter Jr., who is ranked No. 3 in the nation on the 2017 ESPN Top 100 board and has signed to play at Duke next year.
"He (Carter Jr.) was just too much of a dominant force on the inside and outside," Stokes said. "For him to be big and athletic as he is, is simply amazing to watch. He isn’t a top five player in the country for no reason."
Liberty tried to create offense and cut into the Knights lead, being down as much as 18 points in the first half. But it wasn’t until Carter was taken out because of foul trouble, when the Panthers started to make a comeback toward the end of the second quarter. The score was 39-30 at halftime.
The Panthers tried fighting their way back, but foul trouble hindered and limited their opportunities.
"Every time we were on the verge of either tying the game up or cutting the lead to an even smaller margin, simple mistakes blocked us," Stokes said. "Whether it be another foul call, a missed shot, or even just gathering a much needed defensive rebound, everything just didn’t seem to fall our way at the times we needed it most. But you have to fight through that sometimes."
And the Panthers did fight through the final buzzer. They scored the same amount of points as Pace Academy in the second half (32 points each), and put up a great effort. Will Richardson finished with 28 points, 6 rebounds, and 5 assists, while Davion Mitchell finished with 19 points, 5 rebounds, and 5 assists.
Liberty County finished the season with a 22-6 record. Stokes said the first half of the season was a bit shaky. With an early injury to Mitchell and a three-game losing streak in December, it took time for the Panthers to find solid ground. Once they pulled things together, Liberty was a dominant force in the second half of the season, winning their final nine regular season games and the Region 2-AAA championship.
Richardson, according to maxpreps.com, led the state in scoring this season with 31.4 points a game, and was named Region Player of the Year. Mitchell, who averaged almost 24 points a game, was a first team All-Region selection, and has signed to play at Auburn University. He will report to the Tigers in the fall.
Stokes had high praise for the Panthers’ nine seniors. Over their time at Liberty County, they were a part of three straight final four appearances in the state tournament, with one state championship, and three straight region championships.
"They have helped turn Liberty County basketball into an elite program and will forever leave a mark for other teams to reach in the future," Stokes said. "The standard has been set and I am fortunate to have been a part of this magical run over the years.