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Staley hands top-ranked Blue Jays their first loss of season, claims Liberty tournament title once again

For the third straight year, Staley defeated Liberty in the final of the C.W. Stessman Invitational.

By Chris Geinosky | Photos by David Smith

LIBERTY — Few visiting high school boys basketball teams have found success at Liberty High School’s Fieldhouse through the years, but one squad has had the Blue Jays’ number as of late.

For a third straight year, Staley defeated Liberty in the finals of the C.W. Stessman Invitational, preventing the Jays from claiming the title at their home tournament. In the premier prep game of the night in the state of Missouri on Friday, the Falcons knocked off the Blue Jays in front of a capacity crowd, 51-35, in a contest featuring two of the best in the Show-Me State.

“This is a big tournament, and we just come prepared,” Staley junior point guard Kyan Evans said. “This is a really big win. They’re a great team.”

Staley (15-2), who is No. 5 in the SBLive Top 25 power rankings, led wire-to-wire and ran off the floor with yet another C.W. Stessman championship trophy. But most noteworthy, the Falcons handed No. 1 Liberty (15-1) its first loss of the 21-22 season and only its second defeat in the past 31 games dating back to last year’s Stessman Invite. 

“We just love this tournament and coming here every year,” Staley head coach Chris Neff said. “A lot of teams run away from it, but we like to run toward the best competition. That’s why we’re here.”

In the first two rounds of the tournament, both teams showcased their high-octane offenses as Liberty scored more than 80 points against Kansas City East and Columbia Hickman while Staley averaged 74 points per game in victories against Leavenworth (Kan.) and William Chrisman. However, they turned to the other end of the court in the championship game.

Staley played suffocating defense throughout the final, limiting the Blue Jays to their lowest scoring output of the campaign and exactly half of their 70-points-per-game average for the season. Liberty mustered only five baskets in the entire first half, falling behind 26-14 at the intermission. 

“The one thing we didn’t do was adjust and do some little things to try to get some more layups and get to the free-throw line in the first half,” Liberty head coach Roger Stirtz said. “I thought we did a much better job of that in the second half, but it was just too little, too late.”

Liberty also struggled shooting the ball. A team that connected on 14 3-pointers one night earlier in the semifinals, the Blue Jays hit only three from long range in the finals.

“There’s no doubt that was the key,” Neff said. “That team we had to guard tonight is tremendous on offense. We really dedicated ourselves to changing up our ball-screen defense, and I thought we made it tough on them.”

Staley opened the game on a 10-2 run and made the Blue Jays play from behind all night. Once down by double digits, Liberty just didn’t do enough at the offensive end to make a serious run at the deficit. 

Evans, who had to play through foul trouble, still scored a game-high 20 points, and junior post Kayden Fish finished with 13. Both were named to the All-Tournament Team for the second straight year. Emmanuel Byrd added eight points. 

Liberty senior Bennett Stirtz, who also made the All-Tourney Team, was the only Blue Jay to reach double figures with 15 points, but all but two of those came in the second half after the game had already gotten away from his team. 

“We understood our purpose, but we just didn’t execute the way we normally do,” Stirtz said. “The bottom line on offense is that the ball has to see the net, and we were just a little bit off tonight. I’m confident that this will make us better in the long run.”

Liberty played without senior Karson Milbrandt, who was making his official college visit with the University of Vanderbilt baseball program. Obviously, his presence will make a difference if and when the teams meet later in the postseason. Liberty ended Staley’s season last year and then went on a run all the way to the state championship game.

“It’s been a really good rivalry with them the past few years, and they knocked us out last year in the playoffs, so we really wanted to come in here this time and get a win,” Evans pointed out. “We’re glad to get this one, but at the same time, we just have to let this one go. What happened tonight isn’t going to matter the next time we play.”

William Chrisman (11-5) used a second-half comeback to knock off Columbia Hickman (10-8) in the tournament third-place game. Trailing most of the first half, the Bears flipped the game around after halftime.

Senior guard Jessie Minter had a big night, finishing with a game-high 27 points. Senior forward Dayne Herl dropped in 20 points and was named to the All-Tournament Team. Jordan Richardson scored 16 points and James Townsend added 14 for Hickman. 

Olathe Northwest (Kan.) defeated Belton, 59-51, in the fifth-place game. Zaid Dajani finished with a game-high 24 points and was named to the All-Tourney Team for the second year in a row.

Leavenworth (Kan.) won the seventh-place consolation game against Kansas City East, 79-32. Jaikuan Darthard led the way with 16 points, and Jeremiah Lewis was right behind with 15.