Liberty pulls away from Struthers in final seconds
By Joe Scalzo
Thanks in part to the football team’s playoff run, Liberty High boys basketball coach Dan Bubon figures he’s had his top 10 players together for just two practices this year.
Meanwhile, Struthers coach Joe Savko has just one starter left from last year’s regional semifinalists — the second straight year graduation has decimated a district championship team.
So it wasn’t surprising when the last minute of Friday’s matchup looked a little chaotic. What was surprising was the final score.
Liberty’s 71-60 victory came less than 40 seconds after Leopards senior David Hight was whistled for traveling with his team clinging to a 62-60 lead. But, on the other end, Struthers senior Tommy Kimbrough marred an otherwise terrific game with two costly mistakes.
First, he was called for a double-dribble with 29 seconds left. Frustrated (with himself, not the call), he then hammered the ball down behind him, where it ricocheted off the rim and drew a technical foul.
“Tommy is a great kid, but he’s so emotional,” Savko said. “He wears his heart on his sleeve and everybody knows it. He means well all the time and he’s always playing hard, but sometimes he lets that [emotion] get to him.
“He just wanted to get a bucket there to get us back even. He was more mad at himself than anything else.”
Leopards senior point guard John Helms Jr. then sank both technical free throws and added two regular ones 11 seconds later to give Liberty a six-point lead.
“The past two games, I was bad with free throws so I shot a lot of free throws in practice and got my rhythm down pat,” said Helms, who had 11 points and four assists. “When coach called me over and told me I was shooting them, I just had it in my head that I had to make them.”
Hight finished off the victory with two steals and five points in the final seconds for Liberty (2-1), which outscored Struthers 25-13 in the fourth quarter.
Darrien Underwood scored 19 points with eight rebounds and Asim Pleas and Cameron Clark each scored 13.
“I just keep telling them every day, ‘We’re going to get better, just hang with it,’” Bubon said. “We literally have not worked on end-of-the-game situations for more than five minutes.
“We make a lot of mental mistakes but John [Helms] is doing a good job of trying to keep us under control.”
Kimbrough led the Wildcats (2-1) with 21 points while David Stewart had 13 points and eight rebounds and Joe Wilaj (the team’s only returning starter) had nine points and eight assists.
“We’re out there playing hard,” Savko said. “We don’t have too much varsity experience but we can’t use that as an excuse.”