By Ted Waddell
LIBERTY January 11, 2008 It was the defensive battle of the year, as the rival Liberty Indians and Monticello Panthers squared off Tuesday night in a non-league basketball game at Liberty High School.
It was a war on the floor and a battle on the boards as both teams fought for supremacy. The Panthers and Indians were urged to greater efforts by a veteran coach in his last season and the proverbial young lion on the prowl, respectively.
In the end, Monticello, guided by Coach Dick O’Neill, defeated Liberty, led by Coach Jason Semo, 39-30.
Monticello (4-6) edged the Indians, 9-4, in the first quarter, while each team scored six points in the second period.
At halftime, the Monties were up by five points, 15-10.
In the third period, Liberty (3-5) came out on fire, as the teams fought to a 10-10 tie.
But in the end experience and height paid off, as the Panthers edged the Indians, 14-10, in the final frame on the way to the nine-point victory.
At 7:09 in the final period, Liberty’s Justen Mills made a free throw to pull his team to within a basket at 25-23.
After the Indians tied the game, Jon Hernandez nailed a basket at 5:57 to put Monticello back in the lead at 27-25.
As the home team crowd screamed, Dustin VanLieu drilled a 3-pointer at 6:41 to put Liberty up 28-27.
A few ticks of the game clock later, the Indians blocked at shot under the Panthers’ basket. Ivan Rivera as fouled and made both of his free throws to give the Indians a 30-27 advantage.
At 3:40, Monticello closed to within a point and at 2:41 Dior Jackson knocked down a fadeaway jumper to the Panthers back in the lead at 31-30.
The Panthers scored the last eight points of the quarter to walk off the floor with a win.
Leading scorers for Liberty included Rivera, who had 10 points and Dustin VanLieu, who netted nine points.
For Monticello, William Watson had 12 had a game-high 12 points, while Hernandez recorded nine points.
Brian Patterson and Jackson added eight points and six points, respectively, for the Panthers.
“It was an ugly game, like kissing your sister with a mole on her face,” said O’Neill, who has been Monticello’s Head Coach for 23 years and posted his 400th career win back on November 30.
“The kids I expected to get it done did,” he added. “[Dior] Jackson made some great passes, hit that jumper and then the free throw, and we got the ball under to [Jon] Hernandez who’s given us two solid games in a row… we changed up our offense several times.”
O’Neill said he relies upon his defense to create some easy shots. But against Liberty, he wasn’t too thrilled with his team turning the ball over on three consecutive inbound passes.
For Monticello’s veteran coach, the victory evoked a swirl of bitter sweet emotions as he looked across the floor to Semo.
“When you beat a friend, it takes some of the kick out of it,” O’Neill explained. “When you beat coaches who bust their a--, you feel bad…you sit there and you know what the heck it feels like.
“It was ugly, but beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” he added. “There are wins and there are wins, and this was a win.”
Semo started out his coaching career at Tri-Valley in 1999. He is now the Liberty Central School Athletic Director and this marks his first season as the Head Coach of the Indians.
“There’s a reason Monticello is good,” he said. “They’re well disciplined and extremely well coached.”
Asked what it was like to go up against a veteran coach like O’Neill, Semo replied, “It’s a complete honor. I’m privileged to have an opportunity to coach against a man that I have so much respect for, first as a coach but even more so as a man of true character.”
On the play of Rivera, Semo said, “I’ve always had that one guy on defense, the guy who’s got it. Ivan’s going to be that guy. He doesn’t understand it yet, but he’s starting to figure it out.”
Semo said his team is learning a new system under a new coach.
“Now it’s just staying the course for four quarters for 32 minutes, trying to find our identity,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a time when we’re not playing hard, but there’s a difference between playing hard and really getting after it.”
His take on the hotly contested game?
“In the last couple of minutes, they had a couple of baskets that fell and we didn’t,” Semo said.