LIBERTY — Liberty boys basketball has won so many games by double-digits this season that the team has little experience in games decided by one possession.
That did not matter for the Blue Jays when they closed out Fort Zumwalt North 53-51 in a back-and-forth battle during the Missouri Class 6 semifinal Friday, March 19 at JQH Arena in Springfield.
Junior guards Bennett Stirtz and Luke Stubbs each scored two go-ahead baskets in the final five minutes of regulation. On the last one, Stirtz attacked the basket in the waning seconds to draw the defense toward him before he found Stubbs cutting to the basket for the game-winning layup.
Fort Zumwalt North got one last shot off but missed as the Blue Jays pulled out the tight finish after winning each of its previous postseason games by at least 7 points. Liberty’s only other one-possession game was a 47-46 loss against Raymore-Peculiar in the final of the William Jewell Classic Tournament on Dec. 30, 2020.
Stirtz and Stubbs finished it off, scoring 12 points and 10 points respectively, but it was senior guard Javion Byers who pushed the Blue Jays over the top.
Byers scored a team-high 18 points, including 4 of 7 from 3-point range. His last triple nearly put Liberty in the driver’s seat with a 45-41 led with a little under seven minutes to play.
His long distance shooting helped shore up the biggest disadvantage for the Blue Jays in the game. Fort Zumwalt North hit 7 of 16 3s to stick with a Liberty team who were 1 of 11 from deep outside of Byers.
Panthers forward Connor Turnbull did most of that damage, hitting 3 of 4 triples on his way to a game-high 28 points and 10 rebounds, which Stirtz matched on the boards.
It wasn’t enough as a few more Blue Jays got in on the scoring action.
Senior forward Kellen Goodwin rebounded a missed shot from Stirtz and went back up to score his 5th point on the first go-ahead score of the fourth quarter.
Senior guard Javin Shaw contributed to the low 3-point shooting mark, but his one 3-pointer in four attempts helped keep the Jays in front when the Panthers cut a 5-point gap to just 1 point midway through the third quarter. Shaw finished with 6 points, one steal and a key assist on Stubbs’ second-to-last score.
Both Goodwin and Shaw also continue to be defensive stalwarts that helped Liberty keep Fort Zumwalt North more than 10 points below their season scoring average.
Liberty did not have same success against Kickapoo in the state championship game Kickapoo won 71-62 as the team held a lead most of the contest. Stirtz and Co. tried to power the Jays back into the game down the stretch, cutting a double-digit deficit into a 5-point margin with 40 seconds remaining.
Liberty could not get a 3-pointer to fall, a problem they had throughout the contest as the team finished 6 of 23 from beyond the arc. Stirtz scored 28 points while Byers added 10 points and Stubbs contributed 9 points.