LIBERTY — As the bleachers filled in Liberty there was a sense of electricity throughout the gym, with the North Penn-Liberty Mounties hosting their rival sister school the North Penn-Mansfield Tigers in one of the most anticipated matchups of the season so far.
After a decade of frustration, the Liberty team came in as favorites for the first time in just as many years.
Liberty took down Mansfield for the first time in ten years in a game that was as good, if not better than advertised through the build up of the first half of the season.
In the opening frame of play neither team gained an edge, with Mansfield getting off to a quick start after a few big shots from Curtis Craig that extended their lead to 7-2 in the early minutes of the game. Liberty, as they have all season, responded quickly and closed the gap rapidly to 10-9.
Early foul trouble for the Mounties team sent their best defensive presence in Brandon Thompson to the bench and afforded Mansfield a lot of early free throws that gave them a lot of painless points and a solid lead in the late minutes of the quarter.
Liberty showed off their resilient spirit in the closing minutes of the quarter and rallied back.
After being down 15-10 with only two minutes remaining, Liberty went on a 7-2 run on the back of Noah Spencer who hit clutch shot after clutch shot to close things out and tied the game at 17 after an exciting quarter of play.
The second quarter was all Mansfield early, as they surged ahead and were able to go on a 14-2 run to give them the biggest lead of the night at 31-19. Liberty found themselves in a cold streak, and couldn’t get anything to drop for a long stretch.
Spencer, who has been one of the most dangerous players in the NTL in crunch time, willed his team back with only three minutes remaining in the quarter. After an incredible sequence that ended with a Spencer basket, Liberty started to make their run.
Liberty closed the game to 35-30 capped off by a tough basket by Thompson with only one second remaining and put their team in a position to complete the comeback.
In the third, it seemed coach Brian Litzelman put the emphasis on defensive pressure, because Liberty was all over the court and held Mansfield scoreless in the third and were finally able to make a run to take their first lead since 2-0 in the first quarter.
Liberty pushed their lead to 39-35, and going into the fourth had all the momentum and also a roaring crowd in the stands that propelled them at every turn.
Both teams traded blows early, with every bucket down the stretch seemingly answered by the opponent. In the final minutes, Craig made another big shot for Mansfield, with a three-pointer that regained the lead for Mansfield late by 44-43 and quieted the crowd for the moment.
Thompson responded with a basket of his own, but Craig refused to go away, and hit a baseline jumper to give Mansfield the lead yet again.
With only a little over a minute remaining, Mansfield was clinging to their one point advantage and trying to run as much clock as possible, and were successful in their efforts running the clock to almost the 30 second mark before Liberty gained back possession.
But as he did all night long, Spencer came up huge with a layup where he successfully weaved his way through two defenders on the baseline, threw up a tough layup off the glass and also drew the foul and completed one of the most high-pressure circus shots of his young career.
“I’m just finishing when I get to the hole,” Spencer said. “There’s nobody who can really stop the drive, and if they do, I just kick it out.”
Spencer has been the biggest player in perhaps the entire NTL in the final minutes of close games. He played a big part in beating Wellsboro, Canton and Mansfield in the closing minutes, and has proven time and time again to have the temperament to take important shots down the stretch.
“It feels good,” Spencer said. “My team trusts me to be able to handle the ball at the end of the game. They trust me to go get a bucket and get us the win.”
The confidence Spencer shows in the final minutes of the game has been a big part of Liberty rolling to a 10-1 start, and only dropping one game in their large school stretch of games this season.
Liberty held on in the closing seconds behind a thunderous crowd, and did something no other Liberty team has achieved in the last 10 years, to beat Mansfield.
Liberty has shown time and time again that when it comes down to the final minutes of the game, they are more than equipped to finish teams in the final minutes of the game.
“We have a lot of game experience. You know, you get a couple of games early in the season I thought were really important for us to be battle tested right to the bitter end, and we’ve talked about this a couple times that we have been here before” coach Litzelman said about his teams poise in crunch time.
The junior leader on this team Spencer has been the go-to in the clutch scenarios and brought the magic again as they topped Mansfield. “He’s going to be a four-year starter, and when we know we need something, I know he can go out and get it because he’s a really good athlete, and we are a really good team.”
In the win, Liberty was led by Spencer who scored 26 points, grabbed six boards and assisted on seven baskets. Thompson had another solid game down low where he scored 11 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks. He also almost sucked the air out the gym when he nearly threw down a monstrous dunk in traffic during the fourth quarter.
Mansfield was led by a 15-point performance from Craig, and a 14-point game from Logan Tokarz.
Liberty was back on hardwood on Wednesday, Jan. 15 against Canton and host Williamson on Friday, Jan. 17. For scores and stories pick up next week’s edition of the Gazette.