Liberty Christian's freshmen take state tournament by storm

Mar. 12—ANDERSON — Liberty Christian created some indelible images during its 77-72 victory against Seton Catholic in Saturday's Class 1A boys basketball regional at New Castle.

Perhaps the standout moment was one of many breakaways by point guard Tywaine Fuller Jr., whose 14 points were fueled in part by six steals.

Or maybe it was the sight of Kendrick Martin battling beneath the boards and fighting through defenders to score two of his game-high 22 points.

It might even have been TJ English subtly flipping the ball over the outstretched arm of a defender on his way to the basket to complete a traditional three-point play.

"To be honest, I don't even recall probably doing it," English said prior to Tuesday's practice at The Den. "It was probably just something random in the moment, probably needed to do it to get the play done."

Therein lies the heart of the Lions' fantastically talented freshman trio.

It's not about individual moments of glory or SportsCenter-worthy highlights. The goal is to do whatever is needed in the moment to keep advancing through the IHSAA postseason.

Liberty Christian (17-9) has faced a deficit of at least six points in each of its last three games with the season on the line. But the Lions have never flinched.

That might be surprising to some, given all three freshmen are starters and each plays a significant role. But this is a battle-tested group playing well beyond its years.

More than three decades ago, Michigan's "Fab Five" redefined success for freshmen at the major college level. This spring, Liberty Christian's terrific trio is attempting to do the same for small-school high school basketball.

That was never more evident than in front an estimated crowd of 8,000 fans during the regional at the New Castle Fieldhouse.

On the biggest stage of their high school careers — literally and figuratively — the freshmen put together arguably their best collective performance.

All three players scored in double figures — English fouled out late with 13 points — and the trio helped spearhead a defense that turned an eight-point second-quarter deficit into a peak lead of 12 points in the final stanza.

"We know our defense is gonna lock down when we need to lock down," Martin said. "So when you get to that time, you get lots of steals and transition buckets."

Fuller is the point man.

When he and Martin begin clicking together at the point of attack, the Lions can appear to be impenetrable.

It's no coincidence.

Though the three freshmen obviously are playing together at the varsity level for the first time, they spent years playing together in middle school.

The chemistry on the court is obvious.

"I've been playing with them since I was a little kid," Fuller said. "So I already know how to play with them and stuff."

That camaraderie also has helped off the court.

Last year, English, Martin and Fuller were together at Anderson Prep.

This year, they navigated a new school with new teammates and new expectations together.

It helped to have some familiar faces to turn to as the Lions bonded through the fall and early winter.

"It took a long time," English said. "It took a great time. We had a lot of practices, and all the people bonded together. That's what's really the main part of our team. You've gotta bond together and just become an actual team."

The bond was tested during a grueling regular-season schedule. Only one of Liberty Christian's nine losses came against a fellow 1A opponent, and that setback was avenged with the regional win against the Cardinals.

The tough slate was designed to prepare a young team for moments like last weekend and for the semistate Saturday in Michigan City.

When the Lions take the court against Marquette Catholic (12-15) at 11 a.m. EDT, they're unlikely to be overwhelmed by the moment.

And Liberty Christian still feels its best basketball is ahead.

"There's always room for improvement," English said. "So we all can get better at something, just by even if it's a little gain."

During games like last week's regional win, it's difficult not to think about the future.

The Lions are solely focused on extending the current season and sending seniors Devon Kelley and Jerramie Johnson out with championships.

But the talent of the freshman trio almost requires outsiders to dream about the future possibilities.

As these youngsters grow and improve together, the sky's the limit.

"Yeah," Martin said when asked if he can envision the trio's future together. "We're gonna be unstoppable."