By ANDY WOLF
After getting routinely picked apart in the first quarter, Liberty-Benton’s defense came alive in the second quarter.
The Eagles quickly flipped around a 10-point deficit to lead 29-27 at halftime and stayed in front of Arlington the rest of the way for a 66-55 victory in a hotly contested Blanchard Valley Conference boys basketball game.
Marcellus Eckford led Liberty-Benton with 20 points while Ben Spiess chipped in 16 points and five rebounds.
Jaret Vermillion’s 26 points were a game high for the Red Devils.
Both teams moved to 8-4 overall, 4-1 in the BVC as Arlington was the last remaining unbeaten in league play.
The Eagles gave the BVC title race a huge shakeup by defending their home court. Riverdale, 8-4 overall and a winner over Arcadia on Friday, is also 4-1 in the BVC.
“We needed to take care of business at home,” L-B coach Ben Gerken said. “Our fans did a good job of coming out to show support. We had the whiteout tonight — our student section is really into it.
“We gave them something to cheer on tonight. We played and competed. These are times where in the past, we maybe wouldn’t have battled back from a 10-point deficit.
“(I’m) really proud of the way we executed, got some good looks and finished plays — and that’s the name of the game.”
Both teams knocked down shots in the first quarter, each 7 of 11 from the field, yet the Red Devils carried a 19-14 lead into the second frame.
Vermillion closed the first frame with five points, including a three-point play in the final minute, and Bryce Gast opened the second with a second-chance 3-pointer.
Two free throws by Tyson Speyer gave Arlington its peak lead at 24-14 at the 6:54 mark.
Eckford scored back-to-back buckets — the last a 3-pointer — to stop the drought.
It also started a run of their own.
Liberty-Benton, with Eckford’s points, outscored Arlington 15-3 up until halftime after falling behind by 10 points.
“We just got a little stagnant; we weren’t moving as much,” Arlington coach Jason Vermillion said. “We started trying to catch it, look and evaluate instead of trying to get them moving side-to-side to create some lanes and get in there.
“(Liberty-Benton) did a good job. They played really well and hard — just what you’re supposed to do in a rivalry game.”
The Eagles carried their strong defensive effort into the third quarter, forcing three turnovers to start and never letting the Red Devils get a clean look from 3-point range.
Arlington missed all nine attempts from 3 in the third quarter while Liberty-Benton, again, stayed efficient and balanced at 5 of 11 from the field to lead 40-34 entering the fourth.
Vermillion’s floater in the paint at 1:16 in the third marked the first field goal by the Red Devils since just under four minutes to go in the second — ending a streak of 11 straight misses.
“That’s another thing we’ve been getting better at is being conscious of personnel,” Gerken said, crediting his assistant coaches. “… We focused so much (in practice) on their personnel this week and what they do.”
Most of that effort involved identifying Arlington’s plethora of 3-point shooters.
The Red Devils start three of the top four players in the BVC in made 3s and have a fourth starter in the top 20.
Despite opening the game with 3-pointers on two of their first three possessions, the Red Devils shot just 3 of 21 overall from downtown.
“We didn’t get the inside passes to our post guy for layups like we did in the first half,” Vermillion said. “They did a better job of shutting down those penetration lanes.”
Gerken, again, credited his team following the game plan.
“Defensively, we played just well enough to win; it was a fun win,” Gerken said.
Liberty-Benton opened up a lead as large as 13 points in the fourth quarter, saw it trimmed down to five with 1:10 to go, but never let Arlington get over the hump.
“In the past, we’ve been physically tough; we haven’t been mentally tough,” Gerken said. “Tonight was a perfect game where it shows our mental toughness.
“We had some breakdowns but I think, for the most part, we stayed together, were engaged in what we needed to do, communicated better than what we have been.”
Mehkei Jenkins commanded L-B’s offense for 12 assists to go with his six points and three steals.
Gast and Speyer each had eight points. Ty Webb had five points, nine rebounds and two steals for the Red Devils.
ARLINGTON (8-4, 4-1 BVC)
Vermillion 7-12–26, Comstock 0-0–0, Thornton 1-0–3, Lafferty 1-3–5, Webb 2-1–5, Gast 3-0–8, Speyer 3-2–8. TOTALS: 17-51 18-24 — 55.
LIBERTY-bENTON (8-4, 4-1 BVC)
Abbott 0-1–1, Eckford 8-3–20, Jenkins 3-0–6, Reindel 4-0–8, Spiess 5-5–16, Dillon 2-3–7, Rath 4-0–8. TOTALS: 26-46 12-17 — 66.
Arlington 19 8 7 21 — 55
Liberty-Benton 14 15 11 26 — 66
3-Point GOALS: Arlington 3-21 (Gast 2, Thornton 1); Liberty-Benton 2-8 (Eckford & Spiess).
rebounds: Arlington 33 (Webb 9); Liberty-Benton 27 (Spiess 5).
turnovers: Arlington 13; Liberty-Benton 12.
junior varsity: Liberty-Benton, 43-29.