Liberty head basketball coach Roger Stirtz spent the entire week preaching pace, as in keep up the pace. He made sure his team knew that Lee’s Summit had a size advantage, but that the Tigers had also had a game scheduled the night before.
The Blue Jays (17-5, 6-3 Suburban Red) executed their game plan to perfection as they outlasted an early back-and-forth battle in the paint by keeping the tempo up for four quarters in a 56-45 win over Lee’s Summit (8-14, 2-7) Friday, Feb. 14.
The Blue Jays finished just 1 of 10 from 3-point range, but the pace helped Liberty get 40 points in the paint and 12 points in transition. Senior forward Grant Stubbs led the way with 22 points on 10-of-22 shooting and 14 rebounds, including 10 on the offensive glass.
“We wanted to run and wear their bigs out,” Stirtz said. “I thought we were effective with that because really, our perimeter game never really got going. We didn’t hit too many 3s, but we did enough inside thanks to our bigs and finding some shots around the basket.”
Senior forward Kellen Goodwin added 9 points and nine rebounds, but he also stepped up on defense to slow down Lee’s Summit’s Max Whisner, who scored 8 points in the first seven minutes of the game.
“Kellen’s defense on (Whisner) was really good,” Stirtz said. “We made some corrections. Kellen got into a little bit of foul trouble, but his contesting and blocking shots was the big difference in the game.”
After a 17-14 lead at the end of the first quarter, Goodwin and company were able to slow down Whisner and speed up the rest of the Tigers as the Blue Jays extended their lead to 29-22 at the half.
Liberty eventually turned their pace into points for perimeters players. Jermaine Booker finished with 10 points while sophomore Bennett Stirtz and junior Javion Byers added six, including four of Byers’ points coming in the third quarter as the Blue Jays pushed the lead into double digits.
“We were dribbling too much (early on),” Byers said. “What we needed to do was just get the ball reversed and attack the baseline because they were overplaying a lot in the passing lanes. Once we started doing that, as you saw in the second half, we started to get more good looks, good layups.”
Stirtz credits Byers with staying dialed in and showing resilience after remaining scoreless in the first half.
“He’s just so positive,” Stirtz said. “He didn’t get down on himself. His confidence never waivers. That’s what we like about our guys. They’re tough-minded and they believe in themselves. And more importantly, they believe in each other.”
The team’s confidence and focus on sticking to the game plan helped create a 10-point lead late in the game.
But the victory — and maybe their season — seemed to be in doubt when Stubbs fell down beneath the basket in the final minutes while holding his leg. That scare was only momentary as it quickly became clear he had only suffered a Charley horse.
The Blue Jays only needed Stubbs to ice his leg in the locker room while they iced the game.
“We can get through tonight, I need him for the rest of the season,” Stirtz said. “That’s what I was thinking. … We’ve got great athletic trainers so he’s in good hands.”
Liberty will most likely need Stubbs at full health as the team enters a week with both Truman and crosstown rival Liberty North on the schedule.