Peoria — There’s a silver lining to Wednesday’s Open Division Playoff loss for the No. 25 Tucson Badgers, who fell on the road to No. 8 Liberty 82-69. While a loss in the postseason normally means the end of the season, the Badgers will still have a chance to compete for the 6A State Championship starting next week.
“It’s a good outlook,” Coach Eric Langford said. “Like I told them in the locker room, this is the first time all year we’ve played against length like that… We’re happy but we’re not. To go home, we know we’re playing another game, but still at the end of the day, we feel like we could’ve accomplished more today.”
Although the game didn’t unfold the way Tucson had hoped, Langford knows how beneficial this game was for the Badgers as they prepare to move to the 6A bracket.
“Their guards are tremendous,” Langford said, speaking of Liberty after the game. “I want them to understand this is exciting. Those kids can play. So if you don’t play, it’s gonna be a blowout, especially when we’re on the road.”
Facing off against a team with a lot of solid experience under their belts, as well as multiple kids with the ability to post double-doubles on any given night, Langford was incredibly proud of how his team played. After the game, the Lions players spoke with him and shared their praise for the efforts put forth by Tucson, specifically the guards on the floor, as they didn’t let up the entire game.
Langford also noted the Lions aren’t like any team they’ve seen so far this season, and shared his respect for their ability to make things happen on the court.
“That’s stuff you can build on,” Langford said, discussing his team’s performance tonight against the Lions. “I haven’t seen too many people just flip the script like that as far as playing defense and going at them.”
Liberty got off to an explosive start early, highlighted by back-to-back dunks by senior Caden Hunter. With just over two minutes left to play in the first, another dunk for the Lions coming from senior Ky Green put Liberty up 20-12.
Sophomore Xavier Grajeda was able to sink a floater with around a minute remaining in the first in hopes of generating some offensive momentum for Tucson, but Liberty wasn’t having it. Sophomore Jackson Hunter was able to put up the final shot of the first quarter with just seconds left, giving Liberty the 29-14 lead at the end of one.
After Liberty’s offensive momentum carried over to start the second quarter, Coach Langford calls a timeout with 6:21 remaining before the half in hopes of getting the kids to regroup.
“It wasn’t even an X’s and O’s conversation,” Langford said. “It was nothing about a play here or a play there, it was about having some pride at the end of the day.”
After the timeout, Tucson was able to go back on the court and start chopping away at the lead. With just 2:55 left before half, Liberty then called a timeout after the Badgers had brought it within ten, sitting at 38-28.
Both teams were flowing offensively, keeping the teams gridlocked around a ten point differential the remaining three minutes of the second quarter. When the buzzer sounded and the teams headed to the locker room, Liberty was up 45-35.
“I know our kids will compete, we can play with people, but it was just about settling in on the road,” Langford said. “Playoff game, some of those kids have never been in the playoffs.”
Coming back out of the locker room, it took some time for both squads to get settled back in on the court. It wasn’t until around two minutes in when Liberty was finally able to start picking apart Tucson once again and executing offensively. Once things started clicking for them again, the Lions were up by 19 midway through the third, capped off with a dunk by junior Ring Niyeri.
With around two minutes left in the third, Tucson was able to hit one of their few shots from behind the arc all night, making it 63-51 as the Badgers were still in the fight. Liberty closed out the quarter strong, though, putting up four more to take a 67-51 lead over Tucson with eight minutes left to play.
Things got a little choppy on the court again transitioning into the fourth quarter, as both teams struggled to get to the rim for nearly three minutes. Liberty was the first to be able to break the drought, and a three from senior Davis Hester helped kick-start the energy for the Lions.
Not going down without a fight, the Badgers kept pushing on both sides of the ball knowing they were running out of time to work. In what could have been an ugly finish, the Badgers stood strong and battled until the end, ultimately falling to the Lions 82-69.
“I spoke to their point guard after the game,” Langford said. He continued, “He said, ‘Your guards never let up.’ I said that’s how we have to play, because we’re undermanned. We’re not as tall as everybody. We’ve got to make it up in heart.”
Green led things on the night in scoring for the Lions, posting 28 points. Hunter was not far behind, racking up 26. Meanwhile for Tucson, junior Adam Bernal led things with 17 points, including five of the Badgers’ six made threes on the night.
The Badgers will return home for the remainder of the week while anticipating hosting their next game in the 6A playoffs. They’ll await the results of the 6A play-in round taking place on Friday, Feb. 10 to find out the exact details of their games the following week.