Wendy Alexander/The Madera Tribune
Liberty’s Makani Whiteside rises up for a jumper against Strathmore. Whiteside led the Hawks with 28 points, including 10 rebounds in the quarterfinal victory.
Behind a total team effort, the top-seeded Liberty Hawks boys basketball team held off another challenger in its quest to the program’s first Valley Championship game.
The Hawks had three players score in double-figures and another score nine for a 75-68 victory over ninth-seeded Strathmore Spartans on Friday at Liberty in the Div. V quarterfinals.
“We knew what to expect from Strathmore,” head coach Johnny Gonzales said. “They are a tough team and get after it. They are really physical. It really showed. We got prepared because of our last game against Mendota. They are kind of the same team. Strathmore had more shooters and it kept them in the game. The big win in Kerman really helped us out. We’ve battled through adversity in every game. They know how to play under pressure.”
Liberty standout Makani Whiteside scored a game-high 28 points to go with 10 rebounds and four steals. He shot 50 percent (10-of-20) from the field and hit three 3-pointers.
“It’s great to get into the semifinal,” Whiteside said. “I’m so happy right now. I don’t think I’ve been happier before. I’m grateful.”
Gary Afonin added 15 points to go with 10 rebounds, six offensive. He also went 9-of-10 from the free throw line. Liberty helped close the game by shooting 21-of-28 (75 percent) from the free throw line.
“We’ve been shooting a lot of free throws,” Gonzales said. “When we lost against Washington Union, we told them were going to shoot a lot of free throws. When we come to practice, they are going to shoot 100 free throws. We start off practice with free throws and end with free throws. It’s important. Tonight it showed, just like against Mendota. We have to make our free throws and we did it tonight to close it out.”
Trevor Stephens hit three 3-pointers and scored 11 points. Nathanael Samarin added nine points and four rebounds off the bench. Colton Cardoza scored six points with six rebounds.
The Hawks found themselves trailing 9-2 early in the game. Whiteside started the comeback to outscore Strathmore 12-1 to take a 14-10 lead. Whiteside hit a 3-pointer and Quaid Copher made a steal and layup.
After a Strathmore free throw, Quentin Stewart made a steal and fed Afonin for a layup. Copher added another bucket and Stephens hit a 3-poitner for a 14-10 lead.
Afonin answered a Strathmore jumper with two free throws. The Spartans made two more free throws to cut Liberty’s lead to 16-14 at the end of the first quarter.
Strathmore tied the score with two free throws, but Samarin quickly answered with a free throw. Whiteside made two free throws for a four-point lead.
Strathmore cut the lead, again, to two, but Cardoza made two free throws and Whiteside added another for a five-point lead.
After a Strathmore layup, Afonin made two free throws. Whiteside answered a Strathmore 3-pointer with two more free throws.
The Spartans kept themselves in the game by putting back a missed shot and banking in a 3-pointer for a 28-27 lead. Whiteside quickly got the lead back with a 17-foot jumper.
Afonin and Strathmore exchanged free throws, but Stephens hit a 3-pointer for a 33-29 lead at the half.
Stephens opened the second half scoring with a 3-pointer to get the lead to seven. Strathmore came back with two layups, but Copher found Cardoza for a Liberty layup and a 38-33 lead.
The Spartans went on a six-point run to take the lead after a 3-pointer, free throw and offensive putback.
Whiteside quickly got the Hawks the lead with a 3-pointer. Then, after pulling down a rebound, found Stephens for a layup and a four-point lead.
Strathmore made two free throws to cut the lead to two. However, Whiteside hit a 20-foot 3-pointer and Afonin made a layup off a Cardoza steal. Strathmore wouldn’t go away and scored four straight points to cut the lead to five.
Whiteside shook off his defender and hit a pull-up five footer. However, Strathmore made a 3-pointer and a free throw to cut the lead to one.
The Hawks closed the third quarter with six straight points. Whiteside hit a turnaround five-footer, Afonin made a driving layup and found Johnny Levine for a layup and a 56-49 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Strathmore made four free throws in between a Samarin layup to cut the lead to five.
Whiteside hit a 10-foot jumper and Samarin made two free throws to extend the lead to 62-53 with five minutes left in the game.
“We wanted to stay level-headed,” Whiteside said. “At the start of the fourth quarter, our emotions were running high. I was trying to get the team to settle down and put them away. We all came together as a group and we did that.”
Strathmore cut the lead to six, but after Stephens missed a 3-pointer, Whiteside tipped the ball in for the bucket.
Strathmore kept the lead to six after an offensive putback. Afonin then made two free throws, but the Spartans made a layup.
However, Whiteside found Samarin for a layup and an eight-point lead with three minutes left in the game.
With two minutes left in the game, Whiteside drove baseline for a layup and the foul. Although he missed the free throw, Whiteside gave the Hawks a 70-61 lead.
“That drive kind of killed their energy,” Whiteside said.
From there, it became a free throw game for the Hawks. Although the Spartans closed the game outscoring the Hawks 7-5, Liberty did enough from the line. Cardoza went two-of-four while Afonin made two with 19 seconds left and Samarin closed the scoring with one with 12.3 seconds left for the 75-68 win.