By Ted Waddell
MONTICELLO January 16, 2007 The Monticello Panthers and Liberty Indians were even for nearly three quarters of Friday night’s non-league basketball game at Monticello High School.
That was until the backcourt press of the Panthers, along with their deeper bench, took over and led them to a 59-48 victory.
Monticello improved its record to 7-4 on the 2006-2007 season, while Liberty dropped to 3-8.
Monticello faced early resistance from a Liberty team that had about half the players that Monticello did. The Panthers eventually were able to wear down the Indians with stiff pressure in the backcourt and critical shooting.
Omar Diaz led the way for the Panthers with 20 points. He was the best all-around player on the court, connecting on a number of outside shots as well as blocking shots and making key stops defensively.
Liberty was led by their equally proficient shooter and senior point guard Lakarri Byrd, who led all scorers with 23 points. He rarely missed from downtown.
The Panthers led 14-6 after the first quarter, but Liberty battled back to take an 18-16 lead in the second quarter. The teams battled to a 20-20 tie at the end of the half.
The second half opened up with the play just as feisty as it was in the first. Both point guards hit 3-pointers at the beginning of the period. Byrd’s 3-point shot gave his team its last lead of the game.
Monticello pulled away again with two big 3-pointers by Diaz. But Liberty responded with great team shooting by Byrd, forward Devin Williamson and guard Andre Brand.
The high-flying Williamson was called for a charge late in the third quarter, his fourth foul of the game. He was forced to go to the bench in what turned out to be the turning point of the game.
The Panthers bolted out to a 42-32 lead and never looked back. Williamson eventually returned in the fourth quarter, but it was too late.
Monticello, guided by steady point guard Dior Jackson, preferred to settle into their half court offense, rather than rush the ball up the court in transition. However, they were able to take advantage of Liberty’s weariness in the second half with several fast breaks.
Diaz helped set the tone at the beginning of the game with his high-energy play at both ends of the court. He caused a number of turnovers with his blocks and deflections. He connected on several jump shots from behind the arc as well as ones just in front of the 3-point line.
Brand was an active presence on defense and offense for the Indians. He finished with eight points, but was just as vital to his team through his defense of the Monticello guards in the backcourt and the extra effort he gave.
Mike Hughes was a major defensive factor for the Panthers in the first half. He had a steal and a block on consecutive plays during the second quarter. Such play prevented the Indians from running away with the lead and the momentum when Monticello went through a shooting dry spell and had center Mike Normann on the bench. Normann took a hard tumble to the floor in the second quarter and was forced to sit down with what appeared to be a sore back.
Williamson was a standout on the court with his tremendous leaping ability. He finished with 10 points for the Indians.
In the end, the Panthers deeper bench allowed them to substitute frequently. Their fresh legs wore down the Indians.
Former Liberty player Tyrone White finished with nine points for the Monties. Jackson played an even-keeled game and popped in eight points. He displayed versatility with good ball control and passing, as well as the ability to drive to the basket and hit a long jumper.
Monticello Coach Dick O’Neill said his team “played with hustle and energy from the start.
“You have to let [the opponent] know that you’re here for the whole game,” he continued. “You have to impose your will.”
O’Neill was highly pleased with the performances of Jackson and Diaz in particular. He said they “gave us life.”
O’Neill has been working hard at motivating his players to give that same energy and intensity in every game. He said the team’s backcourt press of the Indians in the second half was one of the keys to the win, because it helped wear them down.