Liberty forward Tucory Rhodes exploded for 12 points in the third quarter to help the Panthers to a 58-53 win over sub-region foe Effingham County in the last game of the Gentlemen’s Classic on Wednesday night.
Rhodes led all scorers with 18 points. Shakur Cook had 14 points and Michael Farrior finished with 12 points for the Panthers, who went 3-0 in the tourney to improve to 9-2 overall.
The Rebels proved a bit hard to handle, though afterward Liberty coach Willie Graham said the win would help his team down the stretch.
"Playing a team like Effingham with quick guards and decent size inside definitely makes us better. We also are still missing some of our players, so being able to beat a team like this without everyone is good," Graham said.
It was clear Effingham wasn’t going to go away quietly from the opening tipoff.
After the Rebels took a 3-0 lead, Liberty’s first points came off a lay up from Shakur Cook. Michael Farrior forced a steal, was fouled and hit his first free throw to tie the game at 3.
The Panthers extended their lead midway through the first quarter when Tamntray Tucker hit a jump shot to put Liberty ahead 7-3 and force an Effingham timeout. The Rebels increased the pressure of their tight, man-to-man defense and pressure defense, which slowed the Liberty transition game down.
Effingham tied the game off a pair of free throws and began to force Liberty turnovers off the press. Offensively, the Rebels used a perimeter passing attack, allowing players to screen and cut inside to score. The Rebels were a presence on the boards, pulling down more rebounds than Liberty in the first half.
"We didn’t do as good as job on the boards as we should have so we had to replace some personnel because of that. Effingham had good, quick guards and they just ran the wheel all night and we got caught chasing the ball inside sometimes," Graham said.
The game remained tied most the first quarter, but Liberty took an 11-9 lead when Effingham missed their last shot and Liberty’s Farrior scored off a layup in the final seconds.
Both teams continued to battle for the lead in the second quarter. Effingham’s rigid defense forced Liberty to move the basketball and create scoring opportunities off of cuts and screens. Liberty also used more of a delayed break in transition.
"Because of their quickness we looked for the delay pass instead of forcing the early break in our transition game. We still were able to get the break going, we just made sure to take care of the basketball," Graham said.
Liberty and Effingham continued to exchange baskets and fouls throughout the second quarter. Effingham took a 29-26 lead in the final seconds of the second quarter off a 3-pointer. Liberty’s Shakur Cook hit a desperation last shot at the buzzer, tying the game at 29.
Effingham took a 31-29 lead in the first minutes of the third quarter, but by the end of the period Liberty held a 45-42 advantage.
The Rebels continued to challenge for the lead but the Panthers were able to stay in control. A pair of free throws and a layup from Liberty’s Sayvon Wilson sealed the game in the final minutes of the fourth quarter.
The Panthers travel to Richmond Hill on Friday when the second half of the season resumes and region play begins.
The biggest key, according to Graham, for his club to be competitive in Region 2A-AAAA is learning to be more consistent in all phases of the game.
"We try to put players in position where they are not comfortable. We are still searching for a permanent starting lineup. We have played good at times, but we also we have done some things that hurt us. We need to learn to be more consistent all of the time," Graham said.
Liberty 58, Effingham 53
Liberty: Tucory Rhodes 18, Shakur Cook 14, Michael Farrior 12, Sayvon Wilson 6, Tamontray Tucker 2, Melvin King 2, Travon Walthour 2.