Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Liberty’s Makani Whiteside gets a shot off despite a hand in his face. He scored a game-high 25 points in a Div. V first round victory.
With a minute and half remaining in the fourth quarter, Makani Whiteside recovered a loose ball and scored a layup, plus the foul to push the Liberty Hawks boys basketball team’s lead to 42-35.
Top-seeded Liberty overcame a 9-1 late run by the 16th seeded Mendota Aztecs to win its Div. V Central Section playoffs opener 45-37 at Liberty on Wednesday.
“We told the boys in the beginning to be ready for a four-quarter game,” Liberty head coach Johnny Gonzales said. “That fourth quarter was crucial, and we knew whoever wanted it most was going to take it there at the end and, thankfully, the boys stepped up and got this win.”
Whiteside finished with a game-high 25 points while Gary Afonin pitched in 10 points, including six rebounds and three steals.
Although Liberty beat Mendota earlier in the year by 41 points, Mendota kept the playoff game much closer.
“We let them know it wasn’t going to be like our other three games against them. We knew it was going to be a nail biter,” Gonzalez said. “Every team comes ready to play this time of year and tonight it showed. It’s the playoffs. Everyone wants to win a championship.”
The Hawks not only had to combat Mendota, they also had to fight off a long layoff before their playoff game on Wednesday.
“Six days or eight days, whatever it was, it was a long time before our game,” Gonzalez said. “Especially after we were on a roll and things were going our way during the seven-game winning streak, but Mendota came to play, and I give it up to their coach, who did a great job.”
The Hawks opened the game energized on both ends of the court. Offensively, Liberty had their shots falling after Whiteside hit three shots for seven points, along with Afonin and Johnny Levine who each had bucket as the Hawks outscored Mendota 11-4.
The visitors had 14 combined points in the first half while Whiteside outscored Mendota with 15 points.
The Hawks outscored the Aztecs 24-23 in the second half, but Liberty had to rely on the free-throw line in the end.
Liberty went 14-of-20 from the free throw line and, in a close game, those extra points become crucial.
“We have to make our free throws at the end, that’s something we preach on,” Gonzalez said.
Behind two three-point shots by Guillermo Ruiz and Elijah Torrez, the Aztecs pushed back on the Hawks. Not only did Mendota start making shots of its own, they began forcing the Hawks into tough ones.
Whiteside made seven shots in the first half and only a one in the second. Mendota forced Whiteside into tough shots by using bodies to alter his motion. Whiteside never gave in as he continued to attack the hoop, but Afonin picked up the slack.
The ball handler scored eight of his 10 points in the third quarter to keep the Hawks afloat while Whiteside struggled from the field.
Whiteside’s struggles allowed the Aztecs to make a run in the second half, including a 9-1 run in the fourth quarter that cut the Hawks’ lead to three. However, it was Whiteside’s defense that turned the tide in the end.
His steal and score with a minute left pushed the lead from four to seven, effectively ending the game.
The Aztecs had to continue fouling, giving Liberty more of a cushion after each whistle. After a close scare in the end, the Hawks triumphed to move on in the Div. V playoffs. Liberty hosted No. 8 Strathmore on Friday.