Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Liberty's Nathanael Samarin drives to the hoop during the Hawks' victory over Sierra on Friday night during the Liberty Hawks Classic.
After seven straight wins and two in the Hawks’ Classic, the Liberty Hawks boys basketball team were unable to find the final bucket in a 61-59 championship game loss to the Firebaugh Eagles at Liberty High School.
“Overall, I thought our team’s performance was great and they played with a lot of energy,” Liberty head coach Johnny Gonzales said. “I know at the end we came up short, but overall our performance was really good, and the boys gave it their all. Makani (Whiteside’s) injured fingers on his shooting hand really hurt us after we pulled him out of the third quarter.”
In the first round, the Hawks defeated the Minarets Mustangs, 77-51. First-year Hawk Makani Whiteside continued his unearthly start to the new season. Standing at 6-feet, 4-inches, Whiteside can play in the paint like a big man, but also around the perimeter as a guard.
His ability to create shots for himself helped contribute to a 26-point win in which he scored 35 points to go along with 9 rebounds. Nathanael Samarin chipped in 19 points to help the Hawks advance past the first round.
“Since Makani has come on, he’s had a huge impact on our team and not only that, he has really good court vision,” Gonzales said. “He finds everybody and the positive thing is he’s making the whole team better. If the other players can continue to get better and help him finish, the team will continue to get stronger.
“One thing we did well was our rebounding and our second opportunities. That’s the key right now and last year it was the opposite for us,” Gonzales said. “We couldn’t get rebounds and didn’t have second-chance opportunities — we gave the other team those opportunities last year. We are doing a lot better on both sides of the ball as well in terms of offense and defense. Also, with Makani’s scoring, he’s another reason why we’ve been successful — he has big numbers.”
After an opening win over the Mustangs, the Hawks turned their sights on the Sierra Chieftains. The Hawks faced a tough challenge against Sierra, but behind Whiteside, Johnny Levine and Quaid Copher — Liberty was more than ready for the challenge, winning 73-65.
Although the Hawks suffered from lapses in concentration throughout the game, they were able to dig deep and get the victory.
“The one thing about this game was that we weren’t too disciplined. We had four players in foul trouble with four fouls. It was just really bad,” Gonzales said. “Games usually last about an hour and a half, but this game was more than two hours. The clock was always starting and stopping. We just have to be more disciplined on defense. The referees were really looking for the hand checks and that really hurt us, where we kept putting Sierra on the line. Just dumb fouls putting them in the double bonus.”
Despite the fouling trouble, the Hawks’ trio combined for 40 of the Hawks 73 points. Levine and Copher both shot over 65 percent from the field. Both squads pushed back and forth throughout the first half ending in a 23-22 Hawks’ lead, but they knew the Chieftains were not going away without a fight.
Led by Whiteside, the Hawks strangled the Chieftains offense, only allowing 13 points as the Hawks outscored their opponents by six. Their lead never faded, although the Chieftains made it difficult.
Sierra came out in the second half and countered Liberty. Sierra’s shooting defense forced Liberty into 40 percent shooting throughout the game, including Whiteside who shot a dismal 25 percent after missing 15 of his shots, although he was 50 percent from the three-point line.
The Hawks outscored the Chieftains, to take the second-round matchup, 73-65.
After two straight wins, the Hawks now had their fate in their hand, but unfortunately couldn’t pull out a close victory 61-59
It was a tale of two halves for the Hawks. In the first half, Liberty outscored Firebaugh 37-26 after a 21-9 second quarter. The catalyst, Whiteside, had 29 points and nine rebounds in only two and a half quarters as he was hindered halfway through the third quarter with an injury.
“He suffered a couple jammed fingers on his shooting hand and we had to take him out in the third quarter,” Gonzales said. “It was a blow for us because how talented and how important he is for the team. We just want him to be healthy for our next game.”
The Eagles capitalized on the in the third quarter to outscore Liberty 20-7. Although the Hawks shot 50 percent for the game, they couldn’t make up for the loss of Whiteside as they played even with the Eagles in the fourth quarter.
For Liberty moving forward after the championship round loss, the health of Whiteside is a priority, but just as important as working on defensive issues.
“He’s going through a hand injury right now and it showed in our loss to Firebaugh, but his impact on our team is huge and hopefully he gets better soon for next few games,” Gonzales said. “But we have to improve on our defense. Our discipline on defense will be a focus for us.