The Liberty County High School boys’ basketball team played like a region-championship team Saturday.
Riding a 13-game winning streak, the Panthers defeated Woodard Academy, 72-62, at LCHS to earn a berth in the Class AAAA quarterfinals. Liberty, the top seed from Region 3, will host Region 2 No. 2 seed Americus-Sumter at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“Today is the best, most complete game that we have played all year,” Panther coach Willie Graham said.
A mere 72 hours earlier, playing dead-feet defense and shooting atrociously, Henry County beat the Panthers in every facet — except on the scoreboard.
“Before we played Henry County … we probably had the worst practice we had all year and it definitely showed … we still were able to get by Henry County and be able to play Woodard Academy today,” Graham said.
While Henry had size and played physical — resulting in a large number of fouls — Woodward Academy’s scouting report would be easy for the Panthers to understand.
“Woodward Academy was very comparable to Benedictine,” Graham said. “BC is a good basketball team. They aren’t real fancy, but they are methodical, fundamentally sound, and that’s what will absolutely wear teams down that may even have better athletes than them. Because we had a good understanding of what was in front of us on Saturday, our practice Friday was totally different … It was one of the times this year that we showed extreme focus and discipline, so we were ready to play when we stepped on the court against Woodward Saturday.”
From the opening tip, Liberty glided up and down the court, hitting shots from all over the floor and battling for loose balls. Sophomore guard Richard LeCounte looked like he was playing safety, intercepting an arcing Woodward inbounds pass that resulted in a fast-break layup. Every Liberty County Panther on the court shot hands forward to deflect passes, sealed out for rebounds and hit the floor head-first while taking offensive charges.
Liberty took the early lead against Woodward and kept the pace of the game most of the first quarter. The Eagles hit their 3-pointers and took take a 16-12 lead. However, the score was tied, 21-21, at the end of the first period.
Woodward tried to stay in a man-to-man defense, but the Panthers, using their athleticism to attack the baseline, scored off layups and dishes to other players. Woodward tried switching to a zone defense, which gave Liberty more open shots from outside. The Panthers also started to develop their inside game.
“Today, Jishaun Harris really stepped up his game inside,” Graham said. “He really gave us a better inside game than we have had in a while. He was able to score on the block and rebound, so we started getting the ball inside to him, which took pressure off of the guards.”
The lead seesawed in the final minutes until Woodward grabbed its final lead of the game, 34-33. Liberty’s Tyriq Reece hit a 3-pointer from the left corner as the buzzer sounded, giving Liberty a 36-34 lead at the break.
The second half belonged to the Panthers. Liberty built a 50-38 lead, seemingly cruising to a win, but Woodward’s doggedness cut its deficit to four points in the final minutes. However, Liberty showed patience down the stretch, hitting its free throws as Woodward was forced to foul.
LeCounte and Davion Mitchell — who combined for 45 points against Woodward — arguably have developed into one of the top pairs of best sophomore guards in the state.
“We are a young team. We have been all year, we only have one senior. Obviously, we still make some mistakes that a sophomore player may,” Graham said. “However, the way Richard and Davion have played this year and how well they play together, we are starting to play good basketball. We have to keep getting better because from the point starting the region tournament to playing the state tournament, the talent level starts to get equal, and more than likely, you start playing teams that have more talent than you and have to find ways to make up for that and we did that against Woodward. We played good team basketball. Today, they gave us everything they had and that is what it takes to keep moving on in the tournament.”
LeCounte had 23 points and Mitchell had 22 points. Jaalon Frazier had 10 points, Reece contributed nine points, and Harris had eight.
Americus-Sumter, 26-5 on the season, won at Cartersville, 54-33, on Saturday. The winner moves on to the semifinals at 4:45 p.m. Saturday at the University of West Georgia in Carrollton.
Liberty 72, Woodward Academy 62
Liberty scoring — Richard LeCounte 23 points, Davion Mitchell 22, Jaalon Frazier 10, Tyriq Reece 9, Jishaun Harris 8.