A 13-point lead now a two-point deficit, and a season on the brink entering the fourth quarter, Williamsport senior Jahad Thomas kept it short and simple before the Millionaires retook the court.
"I just said, 'We've worked too hard for this,'" Thomas said. "We're not going out with an L. I don't want this to be my last game."
Herb Stelly of Williamsport dribbles as Liberty’s Chavon Williams defends Saturday at Montoursville.
Thomas scored 10 of his game-high 27 points in the fourth quarter, Chris Kinley drew a huge charge in the final minute and Isaiah Washington converted a go-ahead 3-point play Saturday at Montoursville as Williamsport rallied past Bethlehem Liberty, 62-60 in the opening round of the Class AAAA state tournament. Nothing came easy in front of a sold-out crowd that turned Montoursville into a sea of red, but that really is not Williamsport's style.
The Millionaires (23-2) have shown as much toughness as talent this season and again excelled in crunch time, making just enough plays to win their 14th straight and earn a much anticipated second-round game against two-time defending state champion Chester Wednesday.
"There have been times when we haven't played our best or we didn't bring our 'A' game but the kids find a way to fight back," Williamsport coach Allen Taylor said. "These guys always grind it out, gut it out and just find a way to overcome and persevere and come out on top at the end and that's what we had to do tonight."
"Last year that wouldn't have happened. We would have lost that game," Kinley said. "But this year we have gotten a lot more mature and we know how to handle adversity."
Liberty (19-9) created that adversity after storming back from a 31-18 deficit late in the first half. The Hurricanes took their first lead since the game's opening minute at the third-quarter buzzer when K.J. Williams (15 points) scored on a buzzer-beating layup and made it 46-44.
The final eight minutes were frantic and intense as both teams staged what resembled a heavyweight fight. Both teams took turns responding to big plays and the lead changed hands nine times. Thomas and Washington finally delivered the play that put Williamsport ahead to stay with 1:17 remaining. Thomas hit Washington (15 points, 6 rebounds, 4 assists) cutting down the lane and the Penn State recruit scored on a drive while drawing a foul and hitting the free throw that made it 57-56.
Thomas made a series of big fourth-quarter shots, going 4 for 6 from the field while also making a big steal. Three times, Thomas scored to put Williamsport ahead.
"Jahad has been doing that since 6th grade. He would take over games when we were kids," said reserve Greg Ousley, who played strong off the bench. "I know what Jahad can do. Jahad is a clutch player. He knows what he can do and he comes through."
Two Thomas free throws made it 59-56 and Kinley drew the game's biggest charge with 32.8 seconds remaining. That sent the huge crowd that arrived two hours early into a frenzy as fans stood and went wild as Achilles Watson motioned for them to make more noise. Still, Liberty did not go away, pulling within one on one twice on Chavon Williams free throws in the final 10 seconds.
Kinley hit a free throw with 3.1 seconds left that made it 62-60, but victory was not ensured until Thomas stepped in front of a desperation pass down the sideline as time expired. It was not a masterpiece, but Williamsport survived and found a way. At this stage, that is all that matters.
"We always try to find a way to fight back every time and that's what we did," Thomas said. "I'm just thankful we got this win and now that this game is over my focus is on Chester."
"They came out and got momentum and made some plays, but we stayed together as a team and made some plays," Kinley said. "We did the little things and that's what got us the win in the end."
Thomas Ross, Herb Stelly and Watson made an impact, especially on the defensive end. Ross hit two free throws with 7.4 seconds remaining that put Williamsport ahead, 61-58. Stelly had five points, four rebounds and four assists while diving on the floor at one point to secure a loose ball. Watson dealt three assists and was pivotal to Williamsport's first-half surge.
The Millionaires looked like they might cruise in the second quarter when they went on a 14-2 run and took their 13-point lead. By halftime, Liberty had pulled within eight and then made its big move in the third.
Liberty hit 22 of 24 foul shots and Deshawn Oyeniyi (19 points, 16 rebounds) and Monmouth-bound Greg Noack (12 points, 10 rebounds) both recorded double-doubles. They were two players who nearly derailed a dream Williamsport has had since last year at this time. Now that dream is a step closer to becoming reality. Now, the Millionaires have the game they have wanted so bad as a terrific state rivalry gets renewed.
"Liberty gave us everything they had," Taylor said. "It was a very competitive game and I'm just blessed that we had the opportunity to get through this one and now we have a chance to play Chester."
Deshawn Oyeniyi 5 7-9 19, Greg Noack 4 4-4 12, K.J. Williams 6 2-3 15, Pat Donnelly 0 0-0 0, Chevon Williams 0 8-8 8, Joel Torres 1 0-0 2, Nick Vigilanti 2 0-0 4. Totals 18 22-24 60.
Jahad Thomas 12 3-9 27, Isaiah Washington 5 3-4 15, Chris Kinley 1 6-10 8, Achilles Watson 1 1-3 3, Herb Stelly 1 3-4 5, Thomas Ross 0 2-2 2, Greg Ousley 1 0-0 2, Brandon Fedoriw 0 0-0 0. Totals 21 18-31 62.
Liberty12 12 20 16-60
Williamsport15 17 10 20-62
3-pointers: Liberty 3 (Oyeniyi 2, K. Williams); Williamsport 2 (Washington).
Records: Williamsport 23-2. Liberty 19-9.