Tyler Takeda/The Madera Tribune
Liberty guard Gary Afonin scored 13 points in a 71-66 victory Saturday over the Firebaugh Eagles at Edison High School.
FRESNO — Despite shooting 5-for-29 in the game, Liberty’s Makani Whiteside scored 24 points and delivered a gritty and focused performance to lead the Hawks boys basketball team to a 71-66 non-conference victory over the Firebaugh Eagles at Edison High School.
“That win was huge for us. We talked about it before the game and it’s about playoff seedings later down the line,” Liberty-Madera head coach Johnny Gonzales said. “We remembered what happened in our first meeting — we struggled in the third quarter and only scored seven points to their 20. This time around, we jumped on them early, stayed disciplined on defense and moved the ball better. We had players like Lani Whiteside come off the bench and contribute, which gave our team that extra spark that kept us rolling.”
For the Hawks, their ability to get to the free throw line was the turning point in the game. In the second half, Liberty found it difficult to find a bucket, but having the strength and toughness to fight into the paint proved costly for Firebaugh.
Liberty went to the charity stripe 17 times, including eight times in the final quarter. Makani Whiteside and Gary Afonin led the charge scoring a combined 15 points in the final quarter to stave off any comeback attempt.
“We know if our shot isn’t falling to attack the paint,” Gonzales said. “Every time Makani drives, he attracts so much attention and picks up the contact to get to the line. We went 25-of-31 as a team. That’s what really sealed the game. Makani went 14-of-18 and Gary 9-of-10.”
Afonin finished the game with 13 points, while Lani Whiteside and Logan Stephens combined for 15.
The first quarter opened in favor of the Hawks as they outscored the Eagles 20-16. Whiteside and Nathanael Samarin scored four pounts while Stephens and Quaid Copher had five.
The Eagles were hit by a complete assault from the Hawks and they continued their strong start in the second quarter.
Liberty outscored the Eagles 19-12 to push its lead at halftime to 39-28.
Offensively, the Hawks were on point, but defensively they were just as resolute. In the second quarter, the Hawks defense only allowed a handful of layups while their offense punished the Eagles on their end.
The Whiteside brothers combined for 10 points in the quarter to give Liberty a boost heading into halftime.
Although the Hawks had an 11-point leading going into the third quarter, they kept pushing the issue, but the Eagles had other ideas.
For the first time in the game, Liberty was outscored. The Eagles held an 18-12 advantage in the third and that gave them confidence heading into the final quarter.
For the Hawks, they couldn’t buy a shot in the third quarter. They only converted one field goal.
Most of their points in the third quarter came from the free throw line when they hit 10 free throw shots between Afonin and Whiteside. Their strategy was to take the ball to the basket, no matter what.
That strategy paid off in the fourth quarter after the Eagles defense tightened up. Whiteside leaned on his size and athletic ability to get into the paint with ease.
Whiteside was unable to find his jumper late in the game, but his ability to do other things besides scoring, along with the team picking him up allowed them to take the victory.
“Makani finds different ways to contribute to the team when he’s having a bad game. The boys also find ways to get him the ball near the basket for a 10-foot shot or cutting to basket for a layup,” Gonzales said. “Makani leads the team in rebounding and most of the time he’s getting put backs off rebounds. Our boys also find ways to pick each other up through tough games. There’s always someone coming off the bench to provide that spark for us.”
Firebaugh had no other choice but to foul and foul as the Hawks reaped the benefits for their 18th win of the year.