By JOE SCALZO
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
LIBERTY -- With 5 minutes, 43 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, Liberty point guard Jessica White was lying on the court in agony, trying to keep her tears to a minimum after suffering a leg cramp.
Five minutes later, she came up with a key steal and layup that gave the Leopards just their second lead of the game, 39-38, with 40 seconds left.
"I thought I could get it," White said of the steal. "The second half is when we step it up, but I think we played all four quarters tonight."
Liberty made it interesting -- hitting just one of four free throws in the final 30 seconds -- but held off Niles to win 40-38 Monday night at Liberty High School in the season opener for both teams.
"We were in a lot of close games last year, losing by three, four or five points, so we wanted to start out close," Liberty coach Lori Johnson said. "We wanted to be within six or seven points at halftime, then have the second half to pull past them."
Halftime: Liberty trailed by six at halftime, closed within two at the end of three, and turned to White for the final period. The junior had seven points and an assist in the fourth.
Niles, meanwhile, seemed to self-destruct in the final minute. White's steal came on a simple handoff play between Bree Longberry and Stacia Ray, and the Dragons had two more turnovers and a rushed 3-point attempt that Ray missed at the buzzer.
"It's disappointing," said Niles coach Marc Morgan. "I've seen those two [Ray and Longberry] execute that handoff play probably a 1,000 times."
Part of the problem was depth. Two Niles players transferred to Howland in the off-season and two others are out with illnesses. The Dragons played two freshman and had to rely heavily on Ray, Longberry and junior Taura Mitchell to supply the offense.
"I'm not going to cry about depth," Morgan said. "If I can get out of the first half of the season and split the wins and losses, I'll be happy.
"They just killed us on the offensive boards," Morgan said. "If you're going to shoot outside, you have to box out."
Drought: Liberty started out well, jumping out to an 11-10 first-quarter lead, but did not score for the first 6:30 of the second quarter.
Immediately after Liberty's Ali Fagnano snapped the scoring drought, Longberry found Ray for a 3-pointer to cap a 10-2 run. Niles led 22-16 at the half.
The Leopards struggled with rushed shots during that span, shooting just 6-for-21 in the first half.
"Our whole game plan was to slow it down," Johnson said. "Niles is usually very aggressive and I think some of the girls got a little nervous. I told them to just do the other things and let someone else step up and take those points."
Jennifer Cann had all seven of her points in the first half, and Fagnano had seven of her nine points in the second half. Liberty shot 16-for-51 (31 percent) for the game.
The Dragons shot 13-for-49 from the field (27 percent), including 1-for-11 in the third quarter. Ray had 23 points, but shot 8-for-27 for the game. Longberry added nine points.