By DAVE HANNEMAN
The five seniors on Liberty-Benton’s girls basketball team were all on the floor for Saturday’s opening tip against McComb.
Thirty-two minutes and a 56-31 Blanchard Valley Conference victory later, they were all in the history books.
Led by the 22-point, 14-rebound double-double of senior center Caitlin Elseser, Liberty-Benton capped an unbeaten run through the BVC this season — and unbeaten BVC careers for its five seniors — with a strong defensive effort and an overpowering second half against a scrappy McComb squad.
“We’ve had some very good teams in our league,” said L-B coach Nate Irwin. “These kids’ freshman, sophomore, junior years there was Arlington and Arcadia and McComb. …
“So for a class to go 43-0 in their four years and not lose a varsity BVC game, that’s kind of amazing. We told them after the game that’s something special, a memory they will never forget.”
Liberty-Benton posted 11-0 BVC records in 2016-17, 2017-18 and 2018-19 and this season is 18-3 overall and 10-0 in the BVC. Saturday’s win also ran the program’s BVC winning streak to 49 straight dating back to a 49-27 loss to Arlington in January 2016.
McComb ended regular-season play 15-7 overall, 6-4 in the BVC.
Liberty-Benton did not start off that well on a senior-night afternoon. A good deal of credit for that went to McComb.
Displaying good patience and offensive execution against L-B’s man-to-man defense and a nice touch from outside, McComb led 8-5 thanks to 3-pointers by Malorie Schroeder and Hannah Schroeder.
Two free throws by Alexis Shoop tied the game 10-10 after L-B’s Sydney Elseser pumped in a 2-pointer and 3-pointer, and a basket by Lydia Dehart made it a one-point game by the break (13-12) after Alissa Rhodes nailed a 3 for L-B.
When Shoop answered Sydney Elseser’s basket early in the second quarter with two free throws, McComb was still close on the heels of the Eagles, trailing just 15-14.
“We started out a little flat,” Irwin said. “Senior night is always a little interesting. The girls get caught up in everything; a lot of emotions go into that game.
“McComb had a good game plan and, early on, they played very well. They have a couple of veteran guards (Malorie Schroeder, Shoop, Olivia Miehls) who may only be juniors, but they’ve played a lot of varsity basketball. They did well for them early on, both offensively and defensively.”
Once Liberty-Benton got the senior night butterflies under control, though, the Eagles soared.
Riley Irwin converted two free throws, Rhodes added another and Caitlin Elseser scored to boost L-B’s lead to 20-14.
Elseser would score L-B’s last six points of the first half, then convert an offensive rebound to open the third quarter. The 6-foot-3 center, who is headed to the University of Cincinnati on a basketball scholarship, scored 12 of her 22 points and grabbed six rebounds in the second half when L-B consistently widened the gap, first to 42-23 on back-to-back baskets by Caitlin Elseser, then to 56-26 when Sydney Elseser hit a 3-pointer, a 2-pointer and three free throws during a 14-0 fourth-quarter run.
“Caitlin went through a stretch where she wasn’t finishing very well,” Nate Irwin said. “Give McComb credit. Most of the time they committed two girls to her when she caught the ball inside.
“Today she battled through that, as you would hope a senior veteran would do. She got into a stretch there in the third and fourth quarters where she finished inside and got her confidence back. At the same time, we kicked it out and had some girls hit open shots on the perimeter. When we can do that, it’s usually a good thing for us.”
“Whatever I can do to help my team, that’s what I’ll do,” Caitlin Elseser said. “We started hitting some shots and that opened things up for me inside. I think that’s one of our strengths because we can play inside out pretty well.”
Sydney Elseser added 18 points and eight rebounds for L-B. Rhodes had six points but also eight rebounds as L-B dominated McComb 40-19 on the boards.
Miehls had 11 points for McComb. Shoop added seven points, all from the line.
With the regular season over, L-B and McComb will turn their attention to OHSAA tournament play beginning this week. Liberty-Benton, seeded second in a strong field, will face Tinora at 6:15 p.m. Wednesday in a first-round game at Bluffton High School in the Division III Elida District. McComb will go up against Leipsic at 8 p.m. Tuesday in a Division IV tournament game at Patrick Henry.
McCOMB (15-7, 6-4 BVC)
Shoop 0-7–7, Like 0-0–0, H. Schroeder 1-0–3, Miehls 3-3–11, Mal. Schroeder 2-0–5, Mad. Schroeder 0-1–1, E. Dehart 1-0–2, L. Dehart 1-0–2. TOTALS: 8-38 11-15–31.
LIBERTY-BENTON (18-3, 10-0 bvc)
Kin 0-0–0, Hatch 1-0–3, C. Elseser 11-0–22, Rhodes 2-1–6, Shepherd 0-0–0, Irwin 1-2–5, S. Elseser 6-3–18, Ward 0-0–0, Deeter 0-0–0, Willow 0-0–0, Recker 0-0–0, Hiegel 1-0–2, Smith 0-0–0, Bodie 0-0–0. TOTALS: 22-55 6-11–56.
McComb 12 7 4 8 — 31
Liberty-Benton 13 13 12 18 — 56
3-Point GOALS: McComb 4-16 (Miehls 2, H. Schroeder, Mal. Schroeder); Liberty-Benton 6-22 (S. Elseser 3, Rhodes, Hatch, Irwin).
rebounds: McComb 19 (Miehls 7, Mal. Schroeder 6); Liberty-Benton 40 (C. Elseser 14, Rhodes 8, S. Elseser 8).
turnovers: McComb 12; Liberty-Benton 8.
JUNIOR VARSITY: Liberty-Benton, 46-21.