By George Bremer
The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON, Ind. — When DeShon Gibbs was a youngster attending Indiana Christian Academy, he regularly spent his summer days playing pick-up basketball games with friends going to Liberty Christian.
Like many before and after, Gibbs quickly realized the potential he was seeing on the court.
"I knew something was special with these guys I was playing with," the Lions' senior guard said earlier this week. "And I knew I wanted to be part of it."
Gibbs transferred to Liberty Christian before his freshman year, and his senior class — that includes Preston Quinn, Ben Bowen and Austin Richwine — has helped transform the program.
The 10th-ranked Lions (20-6) make their first Class 1A semistate appearance today against No. 3 Marquette Catholic (18-6) at Lafayette. But don't expect wide-eyed stares from the Liberty Christian bench.
This team has been mentally preparing for the opportunity to play in games of this magnitude since those bygone summer days in the park. Now it's a battle-tested squad with 12 victories in the past three postseasons that will attempt to send the program to its first state championship game.
"They know how to handle it better," Lions coach Jason Chappell said of his team's approach to high-pressure situations. "They have a more mature outlook on how to handle it. I've been watching them the last couple of weeks — the way they speak to each other and the way they speak to the public — and I've been really impressed."
Make no mistake, Liberty Christian will be tested.
Marquette Catholic is an athletic team that likes to run the court and get everyone involved, much like the Lions. The Blazers haven't lost since Jan. 22 and ride a 10-game winning streak into the semistate round.
Junior Ryan Fazekas — a 6-foot-8 shooter who leads the team with 13.3 points per game — already has verbally committed to play college basketball at Providence. And Marquette Catholic won its regional championship game by 30 points.
Liberty Christian counters with a nine-game winning streak of its own and a 10-point regional championship victory over one of the most respected 1A programs in the state.
On paper, there is very little to separate the semistate combatants. The Lions average 70.8 points per game, and the Blazers score 68.8. Marquette Catholic has a 76.42 score in Jeff Sagarin's state-wide computer ratings, good for third overall in Class 1A. Liberty Christian ranks fourth at 75.34.
Punctuating the razor-thin discrepancy, state basketball curator John Harrell predicts a 61-60 for the Blazers on his highly respected website.
The difference figures to come down to execution on game day.
"I feel like that every game," Chappell said. "The team that's most disciplined and the team that executes best will probably be the more successful of the two teams. At this point in the season, no team is able to come up with a new magical defense or a new magic play. The team that gets hot wins."
The Lions got very hot in the second half of last week's regional final, outscoring seventh-ranked Lafayette Central Catholic 50-26 over the final 16 minutes of a 65-55 victory.
But Liberty Christian faced double-digit deficits in both the sectional and regional championship games. It can ill afford another slow start against the Blazers.
The Lions can be as unpredictable as any team, with six different players — Chris Nunn, Franklin Nunn, Quincey Hyatt, Vincent Phillips, Quinn and Gibbs — reaching double-figure scoring in at least one of last week's two regional games. But it will take a measure of consistency to advance to the next round.
"We're gonna have to rebound," Chappell said. "We've gotta get back in transition, we've gotta defend and we've gotta hit some shots. If we can do that, the sky's the limit."