Mountain Ridge boys basketball entered Feb. 7 with a narrow path to victory against Liberty - a win that could pave the road to a berth in a 6A play-in game.
The home team stayed on course by making shots to take a big early lead, then limiting turnovers and controlling the pace to maintain the lead.
Senior guard Matt Jensen was at the controls all night, finishing with 29 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists as #26 Mountain Ridge (10-13 overall, 8-9 regular season) stifled #15 Liberty (14-10, 10-7)
"We knew they are a high volume team. They can get going into the 80s and 90s. Last time we played their game and they ended up getting us," Jensen said. "We needed to really be patient and get good shots. We knew the middle was open last time. The problem was, we were really pushing the ball downcourt and rushing everything."
Jensen scored 17 of his team's 33 first half points as the Mountain Lions built a 33-12 advantage. He said he has planned for running the offense since his freshman year and did so with aplomb Friday night.
Mountain Ridge coach Eli Lopez said his players did a good job getting close to the best Lions best outside shooters and causing them to rush their attempts.
But Liberty had a burst in its arsenal before halftime, finishing the second quarter with a 12-0 run. Sophomore Trevor Owens scored five points in the spurt while senior forward Jacob Patterson added four as the Lions forced turnovers and sped up the game.
"They have a unique style and it's super dangerous. We learned that the hard way the first time. They tire you out and make you work real hard and they shoot the ball really well," Lopez said. "We looked at things and looked at our personnel and said, 'Hey, we have to play really good team ball and be patient.' They kids did that, they moved the ball and waited for the best possible shot. That's the most patience we've shown all season and I'm really proud of our kids."
Just when the game looked to be turning into Liberty's favor, Mountain Ridge regained control, building its lead to 46-30 in the third quarter, then using its guards' ability to pass and handle the ball to burn the final two minutes of the quarter.
After the late first half rally the visitors could muster only a pair of threes in the third quarter.
"Basically we didn't hit threes like we usually do. And they got a big lead and there's no shot clock," Liberty coach Mark Wood said.
The Lions entered the game hitting 32 percent of their threes, and attempting more three-point firld goals than two-point shots to average 72 points a game. Against Mountain Ridge, they made only six of 35 treys.
While Lopez credited the job his defenders did closing out on the Lions' best shooters, he also credited some of those misses to good fortune.
"We really locked down on their three main shooters. The others we just tried to contain, to get a hand on their shot but not really shut them out from three," Jensen said.
Liberty shuttles 10 players in and out to try to maintain a fast tempo. The Lions also have a size advantage over the Mountain Lions.
Wood's team has overcome a lot this year, as three players expected to be regular members of the rotation did not even play a combined 10 games. The coach said his entire roster stepped up to fill the gap this season.
Guliford led the Lions with 11 while Patterson added 10 on the Peoria team's off night.
"We thought we could be playing Chaparral for a region title on Tuesday," Wood said. "But this game doesn't define who we are or how these kids have improved this year."
Meanwhile the hosts rotated six players most of the night, as sophomore swingman Micah Wilkerson is out with an injury.
So Lopez relied on senior guards Jensen, Riley Lopez and Gino Ciccaglione to know when to attack and when to bleed some clock and preserve energy, and to pass the ball around without giving up turnovers.
"All three of our guards are solid with the ball and had great spacing," Lopez said.
They played like their season depended on this game, and it probably did. No. 26 Mountain Ridge and No. 25 Shadow Ridge both knocked off higher ranked opponents Feb. 7, though the win over Liberty should help more than the Stallions victory at Westview.
Plus No. 24 Mesa Red Mountain lost the same night. Now Mountain Ridge enters Tuesday's senior night game against rival O'Connor looking to get in with a win - and a bit of help.
"The guys are fighters and they weren't going to lay down," Lopez said.