Sparked by 18 points in the first half from Liberty’s Michael Farrior, the Panthers cruised past Groves 81-65 in the opening round of the Gentlemen’s Classic on Monday in Statesboro.
Farrior, who finished with a game-high 27 points, fired the opening salvo of the game with a 3-pointer at the top of the key. Groves responded with a 3 of its own, but both Liberty and Groves were plagued with turnovers and errant passes during the first half.
"We didn’t catch the ball really well. We need to work on having better hands in the post but also some of the passes we made were too soft," Liberty Panthers head coach Willie Graham said.
Neither team could pull away in the opening half.
Liberty surged ahead 12-9 in the final three minutes of the opening quarter, but Groves hit a 3-pointer to come within 13-12.
Farrior forced a steal at midcourt, was fouled and hit both foul shots to give Liberty a 19-17 lead. Tamontray Tucker drained a 3-pointer from the corner to put the Panthers up 22-19 at the end of the first quarter.
Liberty shed the Rebel’s full court pressure and began the second quarter with a 7-point run, forcing a Groves time out.
"We figured out that if we attacked the gaps in the press, it made their press ineffective because we attacked the press before they could trap us," Graham said.
The Panthers picked off three more Rebel passes to extend their lead to 31-23. But Groves connected on a 3 and increased lead to 31-23. But Groves connected on a 3 and increased the tempo of its zone defense to climb back in the game 35-32.
The Rebels attempted to get back into the full-court press and Liberty continued to slice through it. Both teams traded blocked shots and, down 47-39, Groves tried to score on its final possession but turned the ball over.
Liberty stayed in control throughout the second half. Groves hit a couple of 3-pointers but were limited by the Panthers consistent transition game. Liberty led 62-51 at the end of third quarter.
In the final period, Panther forward Tucory Rhodes grabbed a deflected rebound and scored the first bucket of the period while also drawing a foul for a 3-point play. Liberty stayed in control, scoring off coast-to-coast layups and taking a minute off the clock each time they went into a four-corners stall.
"Our transition game tonight was better than it has been. We did a much better job of shot selection and completion, " Graham said.
Groves gave the Panthers experience against a school from Region 3-AAAAA. But Graham knows that his team will have a tougher time when they open Region 2A-AAAA play against teams such as Brunswick.
"Groves forced us to play harder on the boards and they had quick guards but not great ball handlers and their big man wasn’t a constant force," Graham said.
Liberty was without four players so Graham’s reserves are getting a chance to see the floor. One strong scorer Shadrach Thornton is playing tailback in the Georgia Junior Bowl this week.
"We are trying to find a place where we can plug everyone in and try to get them some playing time," the coach said.
Tucory Rhodes had 18 points and Melvin King finished with 16 points. Tamontray Tucker chipped in seven points.
Liberty (7-2) faced rival Bradwell Institute Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Gentlemen’s Classic at Statesboro High School.
Liberty 81, Groves 65
Liberty: Michael Farrior 27. Tucory Rhodes 18, Melvin King 16, Tamontray Tucker 7, Travon Walthour 6, Sayvon Wilson 3, Shakur Cook 3.