The Liberty County High School boys’ basketball team has earned its way back to the Class AAAA final four.
The Panthers defeated sixth-ranked Americus-Sumter, 58-52, Wednesday at LCHS to earn a berth in the state semifinals at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton. Liberty (24-4) is scheduled to play at 4:45 p.m. Saturday against the winner of Thursday’s quarterfinal game between defending AAAA champion Jonesboro vs. 29-0 Gainesville-Johnson, which was postponed from Wednesday due to inclement weather.
It took strong effort over the entire game Wednesday for Liberty to earn the program’s third final-four berth and first in seven years.
“We knew coming into the game tonight that we had to be ready to play 32 minutes against Americus-Sumter. They are very similar to us in how the line-up, what type of offense they run, playing man and also shifting to zone,” Liberty County head coach Willie Graham said.
Americus-Sumter established control early, its combination of patient offense and athleticism giving it the early edge. Athletically, Liberty had the advantage, but the Panthers missed 3-pointer and layup attempts.
However, even as Americus-Sumter seemed to garner a small lead or change the momentum, Liberty created turnovers and kept the visitors from making a huge run.
With about a minute left, Panthers sophomore Richard LeCounte threw a no-look pass to fellow sophomore guard Davion Mitchell, who laid in the ball off the glass to cut the Americus-Sumter lead to one point, 14-13, at the break.
“Coming into the game, we matched up fine with them athletically, but we just missed too many shots in the first few minutes,” Graham said. “But we kept playing and had to be more patient and look for the good shots and take care of the basketball.”
The teams battled every tick of the clock in the second quarter. When Liberty couldn’t move the ball or make a cut to get open, LeCounte or Mitchell would simply barrel into the lane and slam into Americus-Sumter players who guarded the basket. Though the frantic, physical drives did not always result in points or a foul, they kept Liberty’s offense going.
As fouls piled up, Liberty moved into a compact 2-3 zone defense, which kept it out of additional foul trouble and stymied Americus-Sumter’s baseline attack.
The Panthers went on a spurt in the final seconds of the half to lead, 26-23, as the teams went to the locker rooms.
Americus-Sumter made the most of its possessions coming out of the break. The visitors hit more open shots and sunk a couple of 3-pointers. Liberty never broke stride, however, moving the basketball more fluidly. Liberty made good offensive decisions kept pace, but Americus-Sumter still grabbed a 38-36 lead at the end of the third quarter.
With four minutes left in the game, Mitchell simply took over. Americus-Sumter couldn’t contain Mitchell on offense; on defense, his feet were active and his hands were going for dribbles and loose balls. Liberty outscored the visitors 22-14 in the final period.
“Davion sets the pace for this team, but Richard is right there with him,” Graham said. “They feed off each other like nothing that I’ve ever seen. They draw a lot of defense and coverage, so we have to do a better job of getting the others more involved in the offense.”
Mitchell led the Panthers with 22 points. LeCounte scored 18, while Jaalon Frazier had 11 points. Javon High led Americus-Sumter with 22 points.
Last October, 69 teams in Class AAAA opened practice, each with the same goal. Soon, only four teams will be left to accomplish that goal.
“We start every season the same way — we want to do well in the region and get better as the season goes a long and then go as far as we can in the state tournament,” Graham said. “Normally, we have always gotten in, but we haven’t made it as far as would have liked to. To be honest, I didn’t know if this would be the team that would do it. We are young, starting three sophomores and two juniors. Granted, we are athletic, but you also have to learn to play the game. We have grown up a lot and played better, especially in the last month.”
Liberty 57, Americus Sumter 52
Liberty scoring — Davion Mitchell 22, Richard LeCounte 18, Jaalon Frazier 11, JiShaun Harris 6, Tyriq Reece 2, Tracy White 2.