FRISCO – With just two weeks left in the regular season on the hardwood, every game is vital in determining not just a district champion, but which four teams in 9-5A will even reach the postseason.
That held especially true Friday night for both the Wakeland and Liberty boys basketball teams, as the two playoff hopefuls battled it out in a gritty, defensive showdown.
But when things were all said and done, it was Wakeland who never trailed en route to a 49-45 victory over the scorching hot Redhawks to remain in contention for its first district title since 2011.
“Nothing is locked up,” said Tyron Lee, Wakeland head coach. “Finishing on top in this one as ugly as it was offensively at home was good, but one thing we can’t do is become content or comfortable.”
Although both teams nearly reached the 50-point plateau, the first half was anything but a barn-burner with Wakeland leading just 6-4 after one quarter of action.
However, the pace picked up drastically to begin the second stanza with junior Cooper Sisco, who finished with 12 points, and sophomore Michael Niemann, who ended with a team-high 13, each dropped in shots from downtown while on a 12-4 run heading into the half.
That momentum for the Wolverines carried over into the third frame as Sisco and big men Kenyan Russell and Jack Marshall extended their lead with nifty plays in the paint to give Wakeland its largest lead of the night at 23-10 two minutes into the second half.
That advantage remained at double-digits and even expanded to 14 after a triple by Dugan Sexton, but the Redhawks found a way to climb back in the final seconds of the third.
That’s when Liberty star senior Micaiah Abii splashed in a make from beyond the arc and was fouled in the process with one second to go before he started the fourth quarter off with a drive and kick to James Hussey for another connection from deep to get the score within single digits at 30-22.
“We have had some growing pains, but one of the final hurdles is if you’re in control of the game then you need to completely control the game and each quarter,” Lee said. “We have progressed a ton and have had a lot of young guys on varsity for a while, but that’s the difference in taking one of the final steps we have to take this season.”
Abii, who had just two points in the first half before finishing with a team-high 13, came alive in the second half along with the rest of his squad.
The Liberty University signee helped spearhead a crucial run, with the help of a pesky full-court press, which even got the Redhawks within four at 33-29 midway through the final quarter. Abii even added an impressive chase-down block moments later on a Wakeland fast-break attempt that ricocheted off of the backboard to keep things in reach before a free throw fest ensued on both ends.
“[Abii] is a phenomenal player, but I feel like we did a pretty good job on him defensively,” Lee said. “[Marshall] battled against him and did a really good job.”
Some critical buckets by Russell and junior Malachi Moonesinghe and free throws from Niemann and Sisco down the stretch then put Liberty away for good for the four-point triumph, as Liberty simply could not overcome the daunting game-long deficit.
“I’m proud of our guys for that not rattling us,” Lee said. “Liberty started making tough shots, and we gave them too many easy points at the free throw line. But I still felt good about our defensive pressure.”