By Ted Waddell
LOCH SHELDRAKE It was touch and go there in the second half, but the Liberty Indians held on to their lead at the end to defeat the Monticello Panthers, 61-55, in Friday night’s non-league basketball game at Paul Gerry Fieldhouse on the campus of Sullivan County Community College (SCCC).
It was the first annual Coaches vs. Cancer Showcase, which was the brainchild of now retired Coach Dick O’Neill of Monticello and Liberty Coach Jason Semo.
It took a year to bring the idea to the court, as Semo faced Monticello Coach Chris Russo, who served as an assistant for seven seasons before succeeding O’Neill, in a game that showcased a worthy cause. That cause was supporting the American Cancer Society, as $700 was raised for the organization.
The contest also demonstrated the true spirit of high school sports: competition and good sportsmanship.
Semo said the game was “32 minutes of respect” between the players and coaches.
Following a recent experimental concept of moving the scholastic game more toward collegiate hoops, the game was played in two 16-minute halves, rather than the customary four eight-minute quarters.
Former SCCC Generals Athletic Director Mike McGuire returned to the fieldhouse floor to serve as the public address announcer and Liberty scorekeeper Ralph Bressler kicked things off with a crowd-pleasing rendition of the national anthem.
Liberty (5-11) took a razor-thin 25-24 lead at halftime, but early in the second frame increased its advantage to 10 points (36-26). At the 8:01 mark the Indians still held a double-digit lead (44-34) as the level of play heated up on both sides of the court.
The Panthers (5-12) clawed back to within five points after a successful 3-point shot. With 3:32 remaining, Monticello shaved Liberty’s lead to four points after Devon Mathis picked off an Indians’ pass, was fouled going to the rim and made one of his free throws to make it a 49-45 game.
With about a minute left on the game clock, Liberty’s DaShawn Williamson stepped up to the free-throw line for two shots.
He missed both attempts, but after the second shot teammate Brandon Tompkins grabbed the rebound and scored to put the Indians up 56-50. The Panthers quickly replied with a bucket to narrow Liberty’s advantage to four points.
With 42.1 seconds left, the Indians came up with possession of the ball under the Panthers’ basket. In two consecutive trips to the free-throw line, Liberty’s Herman Drayton added three points to the Indians’ side of the scorebook to close out the game.
Williamson finished with a game-high 28 points and Drayton added 13 points.
Briar Patterson and Devon Mathis paced the Panthers’ offense with 16 points and 14 points, respectively.
Monticello held the advantage at the free-throw line, making 14-of-20 (70 percent) shots, while Liberty was 10-of-21 (48 percent).
“It’s the story of our season,” Russo said. “We get in a little hole and we can’t dig our way out.”
“Both teams gave a winning effort, but unfortunately for us we didn’t win tonight.”
At times, the Panthers seemed to be chasing a lost love, as they continued to shoot jump shots instead of driving to the basket for a more high percentage shot.
“When somebody’s in your face all night, it’s difficult to make the shots,” Russo said.
And then there was Williamson.
“DaShawn was just incredible,” Russo commented. “I love that kid… he cares so much about the game and works so hard.
“We tried everything we could to make it difficult for him… I’m very proud of the player and person DaShawn has become.”
Semo praised both teams.
“It was a great game, back and forth all night, and they were always within reach,” he said. “Chris [Russo] is doing a great job in his first year at Monticello. Those kids were playing hard.
“There was a point in the second half where we were very close to putting it away, and they came back by just coming after us,” Semo continued. “They are a force to be reckoned with.”
And then there was Williamson.
“DaShawn had a monstrous game, he was all over the place, one play after another with the help of his teammates,” Semo said.
Semo also noted the good performance of Drayton, Connor Hinton and Tompkins.
“A lot of good things happened tonight as the result of team play,” Semo concluded..