LIBERTY — It’s been an impressive start for the Liberty Leopards after a close call to start the season. Over the last three games, they’ve won their games by an average margin of 30.
Thursday night played out roughly the same, as they rolled past the Crestview Rebels 69-40 in a Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference, Gray Tier matchup.
“We’ve just been trying to force ball pressure, not jumping so much, just playing solid defense, forcing some girls to their weak hand, and just having solid communication; just basic fundamentals,” Liberty coach Deidre Watson said.
At least early on, the young Crestview team matched all the fundamentals that the Leopards (5-0, 1-0) looked to perfect.
Emily Downey hit a pair of 3s to match Demi Watson of the Leopards as Crestview (1-4, 0-1) held a 12-9 advantage after a Trinity Miller trey late in the opening quarter.
Instead of matching the Leopards though, the Rebels went cold in the final minutes of the quarter with Liberty finishing out the period on an 8-0 run highlighted by Watson and Aaliyah Foster.
“I liked our start,” Crestview coach Aaron Blatch said. “Emily got us off to a good start knocking down a couple of 3s early. I thought we defended well. Demi got hot for them and knocked down a couple of 3s as well for them.
“She’s a great player, kind of a streak shooter. We felt like we needed to force jumpers and tonight they got hot and made them so give them credit.”
Foster finished with a game-high 26 points, with Watson adding 23.
Deidre Watson refers to them along with Cianna Smith as the Leopards’ three-headed monster.
Smith finished with just seven points, which is a bit of an anomaly, but she had a game-high four assists to help pace the Liberty offense.
“They have many things in their tool belt,” Watson said. “They’re fast. They can shoot the shot. In the beginning of the game, they kind of let Demi open at the three point line.”
Still, the Rebels hung around in the second quarter as both teams struggled to a mark of 7-of-21 shooting combined from the floor, with the Leopards holding a 31-16 lead at the half.
“I’m really proud of our kids,” Blatch said. “We were at a little bit of a disadvantage. Liberty’s a great team. They are probably the most talented team we’re gonna see. My main takeaway tonight is that if you’ve seen us two weeks ago, we’ve made a lot of progress.
“We had stretches tonight with three freshmen and two sophomores on the floor. I felt like we grew up a little bit tonight against a really good team. I’m happy with the effort.”
That they did as they controlled the glass, out-rebounding the Leopards 36 to 17.
“We challenged Trinity Miller to get in there and rebound the ball a little bit better,” Blatch said. “I thought she had a good game. Lexi Blower, this was her first significant varsity time as a freshman. She came in and I mean honestly, I think she has a chance to be the best rebounder we’ve had. I thought she made an impact on the boards.”
The Leopards’ defense picked up in the third quarter, holding the Rebels to just 5-of-14 shooting as Liberty built out a 51-30 lead heading into the fourth quarter.
Watson had nine of the Leopards’ 20 points in the quarter as she seemingly drove to the basket at will.
In the end, Liberty held Crestivew to 33 percent shooting from the floor while the Leopards shot 53 percent.
“Every game we look at stats,” Watson said. “We look at our shooting percentage. We want our girls to shoot at least 40 percent. Some of the girls have personal goals to shoot at least 50 percent. Our goals are very lofty. There are girls who look at stats and are locked in.”
At least early on, the Leopards’ 5-0 start gets them back to what they accomplished two years ago in finishing 19-5 and losing, coincidentally, to Crestview in a Division III District Semifinal.
“The core of our team is back,” Watson said.” We have Demi, Cianna, and Aaliyah. They’ve been kind of our core. They’re back from last year and they’ve been our leading scorers. So that helps. More importantly, we have Jordan Banks back. She’s a senior.
“She played her freshman year and came back this year. She’s been very vocal, keeping the team up when they’re down and just being a great cheerleader. We have Madison (Thompson) who’s been kind of hurt, but those people are very vocal. It’s not about offense all the time, sometimes it’s about morale and encouraging your teammates.”