By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
LAFAYETTE, Ind. — One more run.
That's all the Liberty Christian boys basketball team needed to keep its magical season rolling Saturday afternoon in the Class 1A semistate at Lafayette Jeff. But it never materialized.
Instead, third-ranked Marquette Catholic (20-6) opened the third quarter with a 9-1 spurt to take control of the game and held on for a 72-61 victory that ended the most successful postseason in the Lions' history.
"That's a good team, and we played well against them," Liberty Christian senior Preston Quinn said. "They just hit their shots at the right time, and we didn't."
The 10th-ranked Lions (20-7) shot just 31.3 percent from the floor in the second half and 35.3 percent overall. Trailing 35-33 at intermission, Liberty Christian opened the third quarter with three consecutive misses and fell behind 44-34 just more than three minutes into the period.
Head coach Jason Chappell sensed a flatness from his team and called a timeout to staunch the bleeding.
"They were just tight," he said. "We tried to keep them loose all week. But sometimes your nerves just get the best of you. I can't fault our guys' effort, though. They played hard."
The Lions' shooting remained ragged throughout the period — they finished just 4-for-16 from the floor — but their unrelenting competitive nature kept them in the game.
Liberty Christian scratched and clawed its way to 11 points in the quarter and pulled within seven at 51-44 with less than one minute left. But two empty possessions to end the period kept the Lions from getting any closer.
The Blazers opened the fourth quarter with an 11-2 run to take a commanding 62-48 lead with just 4:03 remaining. Then the Lions showed their fight again.
After Marquette Catholic extended its lead to a game-high 15 points at 66-51, senior Ben Bowen drained back-to-back 3-pointers that gave hope to the legion of Liberty Christian fans who'd made the two-hour trek halfway across the state.
But Bowen fouled out a few moments later, with 1:50 to play, and the uprising was quelled.
"Liberty Christian was an incredible opponent," Marquette Catholic coach Donovan Garletts said "They have really strong guard play, and they have a ton of heart. Those guys deserve everything they got this year as far as their successes. We're proud to be able to say we beat a really good team."
The teams traded punches throughout an entertaining first half that saw eight ties and four lead changes. Lions sophomore Franklin Nunn scored 12 of his game-high 20 points before intermission, and Liberty Christian outrebounded the Blazers 23-18. Nunn also finished with a game-high seven boards.
But Marquette Catholic used its size and bulk in the paint to wear down the Lions in the second half.
The Blazers pulled down 12 of their 21 offensive rebounds after the break, extending possessions and applying extra pressure to the Liberty Christian defense. The Lions did a good job against 6-foot-8 junior Ryan Fazekas — Marquette Catholic's star scorer who has verbally committed to Providence — limiting him to 5-of-17 shooting from the floor.
But Fazekas made the most of his trips to the free-throw line — making all five of his attempts — and tied Richard Mitchell for team-high honors with 15 points. Mitchell also was outstanding from the charity stripe, sinking his first eight attempts and finishing 9-for-11 overall.
The Blazers made 21 of 26 free throws as a team, including 11 of 15 in the final quarter to allow them to maintain their margin down the stretch.
Both teams made 24 field goals overall, and Liberty Christian had the edge in 3-pointers 4-3. But the Lions were outrebounded 45-41 and had six shots blocked.
"I think we left it all out there," said junior Chris Nunn, who finished with 11 points, three assists and two steals. "I look at this game as something to make us work that much harder in the offseason."
Bowen scored 12 points to give the Lions three players in double figures. Braxton Miller (12) and Nathan Flores (11) rounded out Marquette Catholic's four double-digit scorers.
The Blazers will face top-ranked Barr-Reeve (26-1) for the Class 1A state championship next week at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. The Lions, meanwhile, will bid farewell to four seniors — Quinn, Bowen, DeShon Gibbs and Austin Richwine — who helped the program rise from a 5-16 record three years ago to an appearance in the Final Four this spring.
"I hate this for our seniors," Chappell said. "Those four guys have been with us through the storms. When we do get the big one, they'll be a part of it."