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Lions shake off memories of 2023, win first regional title since 2016

Mar. 9—NEW CASTLE — Liberty Christian fans can be excused if they were feeling a little déjà vu as the fourth quarter of Saturday's regional championship game against Seton Catholic at New Castle got underway.

A seven-point lead for their Lions was eerily similar to the eight-point advantage the team held a year ago at the same point in the tournament, a lead that eventually slipped away in the final seconds of a heartbreaking season-ending loss.

Senior Devon Kelley remembered that day well, but has felt for some time the outcome would not be the same this time around.

"Something told me that this year would be different," he said. "I've been preparing for this game my whole season."

"In practice, we worked a lot more on scenarios," LC coach Norman Anderson said. "On the bench during timeouts, I told the guys 'scenarios.' And we finished it out."

Kelley spearheaded a suffocating defensive effort and scored 15 points — one of four Lions in double figures — as Liberty Christian defeated its Pioneer Conference rival 77-72 to claim the first regional crown for the program since the 2016 state championship season.

Seton Catholic's season ended at 19-8 while LC improved to 17-9 with its seventh straight win, and the Lions are now 5-0 all-time against the Cardinals in the tournament.

The win also avenged a 10-point loss to Seton Catholic at Richmond earlier in the season.

The title eased some of the pain of last year's ending.

"It feels great," Kelley said. "Knowing that I made a difference and my senior leadership, it's a great thing to know we did this."

It was also the third straight postseason game the Lions needed to overcome a deficit to emerge victorious, this time trailing by as many as eight points in the first half.

"They've been resilient all year, and that's been our thing," Anderson said. "You've got to match us for 32 minutes. Not 25, not 26, not 27, but you've got to play us until it's 0:00 (left). Our guys know, whether we're up or whether we're down, you don't stop until that buzzer sounds."

"When we're down, our hype level goes up," said Kendrick Martin, one of three freshmen in Anderson's starting lineup. "Our defense gets more stops, and with the traps we get more steals."

It was Anderson's first regional championship as head coach for the Lions.

As has been the story for much of the season, the defense of the Lions proved to be the deciding factor. The Lions forced 21 Cardinals turnovers which were converted — often directly — into 26 Liberty Christian points. A prime example came with just over two minutes left in the third quarter after Seton's Mason Harvey tied the game at 46-46.

The Lions' defense turned the Cardinals over four times — capitalizing on three — to set themselves up with their biggest lead to that point.

Freshman T.J. English collected a steal and scored, drawing a foul for a three-point play. Moments later, Kelley and Tywaine Fuller each did likewise, picking the pocket of a Cardinal ball handler and scoring open layups, to close the third quarter with that all-too-familiar 53-46 lead.

Kelley had five steals while Fuller led all players with six.

"That's really good. That's what our team is," Fuller said. "That's what it is. We just play defense."

"Defense is the key, and it's on the board in (locker room)," Anderson said. "Let's create our offense from our defense."

It turned into an 11-0 run for the Lions when Martin scored in the lane and Kelley added a pair of free throws, and LC was in control 57-46.

Twice in the fourth quarter, the Cardinals made a run, possibly stirring those memories of a year ago.

Except this time around, when Jackson Feist hit a 3-pointer to pull the Cardinals within six, English answered with a pair of Lions' baskets and when Malik Walker connected from long range to trim LC's advantage to a five-point lead, four Kelley points were sandwiched around a Martin three-point play, staking Liberty to a 71-59 lead with under two minutes remaining.

Martin led the Lions with 22 points as all three freshmen finished in double figures. Fuller had 14 and English scored 13 points before fouling out late in the fourth quarter.

LC's first-year players have shown nothing but confidence late in the season as they've gotten the feel for the varsity game.

"We just had to get the flow of it and get used to it," Fuller said.

Kelley, who has had his eye on this game for a year, scored 13 of his 15 points in the second half and spoke confidently of what his team had done.

"In the first half, we pressured them a little bit, but we didn't pressure them enough," he said. "We knew that in the second half they would be worn out if we (continued) pressuring them when we came out of halftime. We stepped up and did what we needed to do."

The Cardinals were led by 26 points and 11 rebounds from Harvey while Walker added 10 points.

The Lions will face Marquette Catholic (12-15) at 11 a.m. EDT Saturday in the Class 1A North semistate at Michigan City.

Fort Wayne Canterbury (16-9) and Elkhart Christian (17-9) will meet in the second semifinal with the winners playing for a spot in the state finals at 8:30 p.m.

Contact Rob Hunt at rob.hunt@heraldbulletin.com or 765-640-4886.