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Defense carries Liberty past crosstown rival Liberty North in low-scoring game

The Blue Jays forced the Eagles into 16 turnovers, which were turned directly into 25 points.

By Chris Geinosky

LIBERTY – Defense has been a priority for the state-ranked Liberty boys basketball team all year long, and that wasn’t going to change heading into postseason play.

A team that has surrendered an average of only 44.7 points per game for the season, the Blue Jays cranked it up one notch further by holding down crosstown rival Liberty North, 48-35, in the first round of Class 6 District 8 play Saturday at Liberty High School Fieldhouse.

“Defense wins championships. That’s going to be the key playing in best district in the state,” Liberty senior Bennett Stirtz said. “We knew this was going to be a low-scoring game, so we knew it was going to be decided at the defensive end.”

Indeed it was. Liberty (24-2 overall record and ranked No. 4 in the SBLive Missouri Top 25) forced the Eagles into 16 turnovers in the game, which were turned directly into 25 points.

Stirtz found himself right in the middle of the game-deciding stretch in the second half that was highlighted by a pair of blocked shots and his two-handed fast-break dunk that sent the home crowd into a frenzy. After halftime alone, the Blue Jays produced five steals that ended in run-out layups at the other end of the court.

“That was probably our best defensive performance of the season,” Liberty head coach Roger Stirtz said. “All of our guys really played well at that end. I thought Karson (Milbrandt) did a great job holding Justis (Braden) in check, and DG (Dylan Gormont) did a nice job guarding in the post. We got our hands on a lot of balls tonight and turned them into easy baskets.”

During a current eight-game winning streak, Liberty has held seven opponents to under 50 points and five of those have been under 40. Two of the performances came against Liberty North, including a 50-33 victory a week earlier, but the games started much differently.

In the last matchup, Liberty raced out to a 19-4 first-quarter lead and never looked back. But in this final meeting, both teams struggled while showing signs of nervousness in the opening minutes as the score remained tied 2-2 until the Blue Jays finally hit a few shots late in the opening frame.

Senior guard Luke Stubbs got his team rolling with nine first-quarter points as Liberty jumped ahead 12-4 after the opening stanza. Melvin Laster finally scored Liberty North’s first bucket of the game early in the second quarter, and the Eagles were able to stay within arms length until halftime, trailing 22-16.

That’s when Liberty took over defensively. Sparked by stellar man-to-man defense, the Blue Jays started the second half on a 10-2 run that opened a 32-18 cushion with 3:15 left in the third quarter. North was never able to pull within single digits the rest of the way.

“They really got after us defensively,” Liberty North head coach Cy Musser said. “They took away Trey (Snyder) and Justis (Braden), and it’s no secret we run through those two. I thought we did a great job of defending them, but we couldn’t defend our turnovers.”

Stubbs paced Liberty with a game-high 17 points, and Bennett Stirtz was right behind with 16. Spencer Blaine added six timely points, but again, it was his work at the defensive end, and that of his teammates, that really stood out at the end of the day.

Laster led Liberty North with 13 points, but most of his came late in the second half after the outcome had already been decided. Justis Braden, who scored 17 points in the last meeting between the teams, mustered only five points. Trey Snyder returned from a late-season ankle injury but was playing at less than 100 percent.

Liberty, the No. 2 seed in the district, will meet No. 3 North Kansas City in the semifinals at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 1, at Park Hill High School. These two teams have not met this season.

Here’s a look at how the rest of the Class 6 District 8 first round games turned out:

No. 1 Staley 66, No. 8 St. Joseph Central 48

Kyan Evans and Kayden Fish made sure SBLive’s top Missouri team would not suffer back-to-back losses. The Falcons’ inside-outside duo combined for 41 points and nearly outscored St. Joseph Central by themselves.

Staley (23-4), which lost the regular-season finale against Lee’s Summit but still entered the postseason as the district’s top seed, bounced back with a convincing victory. The Falcons led 15-7 after the first quarter and stretched the advantage to 35-21 by halftime.

Evans poured in a game-high 26 points, and Fish finished with 15. Asa Bridges added eight points, while Emmanuel Byrd chipped in six. Blakely Thompson led Central with a team-high 17.

No. 3 North Kansas City 69, No. 6 Park Hill 53

North Kansas City continued its late-season surge with a first-round win against Park Hill. Clinging to a three-point lead, 45-42, after three quarters, the Hornets pulled away by outscoring the Trojans 24-11 in the final frame.

Dallas Whitney led the way for Northtown with 22 points, but he had plenty of help. Iverson Neal finished 16 points, and Alex Gunnels added 13.

Twin brothers Marqueas and Kendrick Bell held up their end of the bargain for Park Hill, combining for 39 points, but they didn’t get enough support at the offensive end. Marqueas ripped the nets for a game-high 28 points, and Kendrick finished with 11.

No. 5 Park Hill South 53, No. 4 Oak Park 35

Three regular-season meetings between Park Hill South and Oak Park were decided by a grand total of five points. This one would not be as close.

The Panthers jumped out to a quick start, leading 13-7 after the first quarter, and never looked back thanks to some good work at the defensive end. Connecting on six 3-pointers helped the cause as well.

Cahmai Crosby scored a team-high 15 points for Park Hill South, 13 of them coming in the decisive third quarter when his team took control for good. JD Roberts and Messias Dockery finished with 12 points each.