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Liberty basketball roars back to make first state final

Lions erase 13-point deficit at Phoenix Pinnacle

Posted 2/29/24

PHOENIX - This was not supposed to be the team that ended Liberty's boys basketball title game drought. Not after four starters graduated from the 2022-23 team that went 22-7. 

And …

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Liberty basketball roars back to make first state final

Lions erase 13-point deficit at Phoenix Pinnacle


PHOENIX - This was not supposed to be the team that ended Liberty's boys basketball title game drought. Not after four starters graduated from the 2022-23 team that went 22-7. 

And Wednesday night certainly did not look like the game the Lions would win to make it to the finals, as Pinnacle led the 6A semifinal 53-40 with a bit more than three minutes left in the third quarter. As it turned out, Liberty was only one point above its halfway mark for the night.

Led by junior guard Stephen Miller (24 points) and senior forward Ring Nyeri (20 points, 4 blocks) the visitors went on a 10-0 run late in the third quarter to get within three points. Nyeri's and one gave the Lions a 61-60 lead in the fourth and Liberty would not trail again, holding on for a 79-77 win.

"Everyone told them it would be a rebuilding year and they wouldn't be any good. Coaches were in Ring's DMs saying, 'Just come here.' But these guys believed in themselves and each other. And they believed in the program. This is a program win. It's for all the alumni from last year's team that set the ceiling high. It's for all of them," Liberty coach Mark Wood said.

It took all of them to build this North Peoria program from the ground up. Wood has been the coach since 2006, before the campus even had a gym.

Now #10 Liberty (18-12) plays another surprising first-time finalist in neighbor and region rival in #5 O'Connor (21-9) for the 6A title. The fourth- and fifth-place teams in the brutal Desert Valley Region are playing for the 6A championship.

"All the seniors that were there my freshman year, they came to this game. We went to the final eight my freshman year and lost to Brophy. The next year, we lost to Pinnacle. Right before the game I was looking at the picture from when we lost that game," Nyeri said. "Last year we lost to Perry (in an Open Division quarterfinal). This is our chance to raise the ceiling again and break it now."

Pinnacle (16-14) tied with Liberty at a 5-5 Desert Valley Region record. For the first 21 minutes Wednesday, the No. 6 seed took it to the Lions with designs on its first title game appearance since 2019.

The game was close throughout the first half, with the Pioneers grabbing a 39-35 lead at the break after closing the second quarter on a 7-3 run.

"We're built for this. Coach Wood gave us a hard schedule. We started with Perry and took our Ls early on. That built us up for now. If we didn't have that hard schedule, we wouldn't have been able to be in that environment with a packed student section and not being able to hear our teammates," Nyeri said.

The Pioneers nearly put it away in the third, thanks to five points from senior guard Domonic Okeke, and back-to-back treys by senior point guard Tommy Randolph.

Nyeri responded with and alley oop dunk and a layup to shrink the deficit to 53-44. The game within the game was the head-to-head matchup between these former AAU teammates.

"It was very special to be honest, because he left our Factory team and it was just kind of a hard time," Nyeri said. "I still love him to death and he can always come to me. Off the court we're friends but on the court we want to take it kind of personal because he left that bond of two years and didn't say anything."

He was not the only one taking it personally, as the made baskets allowed the Lions to set up its press better.

Wood said the Lions were actually pressing most of the game, but Pinnacle's pace was so fast. Miller made the second of two free throws, then stole the inbound pass and made a layup for 53-47.

This was only the prelude as Miller poured in 13 points in the fourth quarter.

"They weren't guarding me the way they were supposed to. They weren't taking me as serious as I thought they should. So I just kept going to the cup," Miller said.

Among the highlights was an and-one finish to break the game's last tie, at 64.

His last basket put the Lions up 77-71.

"Steph is a gamer who's learning how to do it unconditionally. It's really awesome to work with high school kids. It just clicks. And you could see that. This is his moment," Wood said. 

Miller also added to the drama, missing the second free throw of both of his final trips to the foul line. After the first, Okeke hit a three and Pinnacle was in a single-possession game at 78-76.

After the second free throw was missed, Randolph was fouled on an off balance three with .4 of a second left. He missed the first foul shot to essentially end the game.

Wood said she would want it no other way than for the players to be in charge of their success. Making the final belong to the players, though it did cause the coach to reflect.

"It's been my baby, and we've had to suffer a lot along the way. We had to suffer with tough scheduling and tough shots ending our season. But every year the kids cared and kept working," Wood said. We had tons of alumni in here tonight. They feel it and know they're a part of this. To see that connection ... it means everything."