By ANDREW WILLIAMS
ADA — Liberty-Benton’s four senior starters never left the floor Saturday night.
While they fought for all 32 minutes and even got within striking distance late in the game, it was the play of a senior and two sophomores from Lima Central Catholic that denied them an opportunity to keep their season alive.
The Thunderbirds, who got 12 points and 10 assists from Xavier Simpson, while Martyce Kimbrough and Tre Cobbs each dropped in 14 points, were too much to handle and earned a Division III district title with a 56-48 victory against the Eagles at Ohio Northern University.
Lima Central Catholic (21-4) advances to the regional tournament where it will face Worthington Christian in a semifinal contest at Bowling Green State University’s Stroh Center on Wednesday at 6:15 p.m. The Warriors topped Grandview Heights 49-40 to move on to the regional.
Kimbrough started things off for the Thunderbirds with a 3-pointer on their first possession, thanks to three offensive rebounds, and they would lead wire-to-wire.
Liberty-Benton (19-5) started the game in a man-to-man defense, but switched to a 2-3 zone and then to a 1-3-1 zone in the first quarter to give Lima Central Catholic different looks in the half court.
Not much worked for the Eagles and they trailed 14-8 after the first quarter.
“We were just trying to keep them off balance a little bit. Don’t let them get comfortable in anything that we’re doing,” Liberty-Benton coach Steve Williman said. “Regardless of what you do, they’re so good at breaking you down off the dribble. They can get to the rim, whether it’s zone or man, and find the open man. They’re difficult to guard.”
It wasn’t just one player doing the damage for the Thunderbirds either, as Kimbrough ended the first half with eight points, Cobbs had seven and Simpson tallied six to give Lima Central Catholic a 28-19 lead at halftime.
“The last two games we had five guys in double figures,” Lima Central Catholic coach Frank Kill said. “Tonight we only put up three, but it was still the points and the minutes that all the guys did. If it was a tip back here or a post move there, it was a total team effort. We don’t rely on just one guy.”
Ryan Geise and Nathan Craft, who combined for 34 points in Liberty-Benton’s district semifinal win against St. Henry, struggled mightily in the first half.
Craft was 0 of 2 from the field and picked up his third foul with 4:56 to play in the second quarter, while Geise went 1 of 2 from the free-throw line and only got off one field goal attempt which was deflected at the buzzer before the half.
“When you hold Nathan Craft to two points, you do something special because we really went after him on both ends of the floor,” Kill said. “(Geise)’s a special player. He’s a kid that I knew was a big, instrumental part of their offense and it showed. The reason why they stuck with us because he’s a big time player and he hit big shots.”
The Eagles came out of the break with a chip on their shoulder and were able to get to the basket with more consistency than they did in the first half.
Adam Cytlak had a pair of buckets and Geise buried a 3-pointer as Liberty-Benton cut into the deficit with a 12-10 third-quarter edge to make it 38-31 entering the final period.
Geise nailed three 3-pointers as part of his 12 fourth-quarter points, including one with 3:35 to play that got the Eagles within 45-39. He finished with 16 points.
Simpson knocked home four free throws before Zach Garver’s old-fashioned 3-point play made it 49-42 with 1:33 remaining in the game.
Lima Central Catholic would not falter, though, and Geise’s 3-pointer with 20 seconds left got it to 55-48, but it was too little too late.
Kimbrough put away 1 of 2 at the foul line to provide the final margin.
“I knew when we beat them back in December, that was going to be the team that we were going to have to face,” Kill said of Central Catholic’s 67-38 victory against the Eagles earlier this season. “I always said that if we wanted to go anywhere, we were going to have to get past them. I knew they were going to be tough to beat.”
Cytlak recorded game-highs of 17 points and six rebounds for Liberty-Benton, which shot 42.9 percent (15 of 35) from the field and 35.7 percent (5 of 14) from 3-point range.
While the rebounding margin was only 24-22 in favor of the Thunderbirds, the offensive glass was where the most damage was done. Lima Central Catholic won that battle 10-6 to get key second-chance opportunities that the Eagles could ill afford to give up.
“Their athleticism bothered us, I thought, early in the ballgame,” Williman said. “They have tremendous athleticism. It forces you to run your offense out a little bit farther. I think, at times, it foces you to shoot quick and it forces you to shoot farther away than you normally do.
“I’m proud of our kids. I thought we really battled in the second half. We had nothing left at the end of the ballgame.”
Geise 4-8 4-6 16, Garver 2-5 1-1 5, Craft 1-5 0-0 2, Cytlak 6-12 4-4 17, Darnall 2-5 3-3 7, May 0-0 1-2 1. TOTALS: 15-35 13-16–48.
LIMA CENTRAL CATHOLIC (21-4)
Walton 2-4 2-3 6, Williams 3-5 2-4 8, Simpson 3-6 6-6 12, Kimbrough 5-13 1-4 14, Cobbs 5-9 3-5 14, Taflinger 0-0 0-0 0, E. O’Connor 0-0 0-0 0, A. O’Connor 0-0 0-0 0. Stewart 1-2 0-0 2. TOTALS: 19-39 14-22–56.
Liberty-Benton 6 11 12 17 — 48
Lima Central Catholic 14 14 10 18 — 56
3-Point GOALS: Liberty-Benton 5-14 (Geise 4-7, Garver 0-2, Cytlak 1-2, Darnall 0-3); Lima Central Catholic (Simpson 0-1, Kimbrough 3-5, Cobbs 1-4, Stewart 0-1).
rebounds: Lima Central Catholic 24 (Williams 6, Walton 5); Liberty-Benton 22 (Cytlak 6, Darnall 5).
ASSISTS: Lima Central Catholic 12 (Simpson 10); Liberty-BBenton 7 (Darnall 3).
STEALS: Lima Central Catholic 5 (Cobbs 2); Liberty-Benton 3 (Darnall 2).
BLOCKS: Liberty-Benton 2; Lima Central Catholic 1.
TURNOVERS: Liberty-Benton 8, Lima Central Catholic 6.
TOTAL FOULS: Liberty-Benton 20, Lima Cemtral Catholic 17.
FOULED OUT: None.
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