BY ZACH EWING Californian staff writer email@example.com
This wasn't exactly David against Goliath, because Liberty's boys basketball program is too good to be David.
But when the Patriots knocked off mighty Fresno-Edison 59-44 on Friday night in the semifinals of the East Bakersfield Winter Classic, it was certainly a coup for the Patriots.
"As coaches, we've known what our ceiling could be when we play together," Liberty coach A.J. Shearon said. "So I'm not surprised at the level we played at, but I am surprised that it came tonight, so early in the year. It was a nice win."
How nice? Edison had won its first seven games by at least 14 points, scoring at least 76 points in each. In Thursday's EB quarterfinals, the Tigers sprinted to an 80-36 victory over Bakersfield -- the same team that beat Liberty 61-51 for the Lloyd Williams tournament championship last week.
"We had been playing pretty bad, but when we play together, we can beat any team in the Valley," said senior Jake Martin, who dazzled his way to 28 points.
Martin was terrific early, scoring on spinning drives, putbacks, leaners and jumpers on his way to 12 first-quarter points.
When Brian Nunn hit a 3-pointer to open the second quarter, it capped a 21-2 Liberty run and gave the Patriots a 23-8 lead.
Edison (7-1) stormed back with its vaunted full-court press and trimmed the lead to 27-26 at halftime. But Liberty scored the first eight points of the second half, and Martin capped the third quarter with a buzzer-beating jumper, then opened the fourth with another bucket to make it 43-34.
"He's really, really skilled," Shearon said. "He's the most skilled, or at least one of the most skilled, players in the section. If you give him space, he has the capability to go off. Tonight, he was also patient and waited for good shots, which he hasn't always done this year."
Martin's heroics aside, it was somewhat surprising Liberty was even in the game after what Edison had done to Bakersfield the day before. But the Patriots, who played their starting five nearly the entire game, didn't let the Tigers get easy baskets via their press, thanks to headstrong point guards Kyle Ferreira and Dalton Cunicelli; played well inside and out with Martin (who also had 12 rebounds), Bray Barnes (10 points, 8 rebounds) and Nunn (9 points, 9 rebounds); and used a zone defense to flummox Edison's half-court offense.
"The pace of the game was our No. 1 concern," Shearon said. "They are so good and athletic that if you let them play their pace, you don't have a shot."
At 7:30 tonight, Liberty (8-4) will play Independence for the title. The Falcons stormed past South 65-39 in the second semifinal.
South led 19-18 in the second quarter when Independence coach Stan Davis called timeout and audibly chewed out his players for a lack of effort. They responded by scoring the final 15 points of the half and out-scoring the Rebels 47-10 over the rest of the game.
"It's all about that with us -- we're a hustle, defense-oriented team," Davis said. "When we're on our heels we're not very balanced."
On this night, the Falcons were balanced above all else: Twelve players scored, including seven with at least five points, but none reached double figures.
"This has been a really fun team to coach," Davis said. "They really enjoy each other."
Independence (10-1) lost to Bakersfield in overtime in last week's semifinals but now gets a shot against Liberty.
Edison plays South in the third-place game. Bakersfield, which edged Garces 44-41, will play Visalia-Redwood, a 57-55 overtime winner over East, for fifth place. The Rams and Blades will play for seventh, and Centennial and Frontier meet for the consolation championship.