When the dust finally settled, the Olentangy Liberty girls basketball team emerged as the OCC-Buckeye champion.
Emma Humaney and Teegan Pifher had 12 points apiece to lead the Patriots to a 40-27 victory at Westerville Central to clinch the title outright Friday night in Westerville.
Pifher salted the game away with a perfect 6-for-6 effort at the line — and led Liberty with eight blocks — and Humaney knocked down four three-pointers.
“I put a lot of practice in (shooting) in the off-season,” Humaney said. “That’s my role on the team and I have to perfect it to give my team the best opportunity to win.”
A Westerville North victory at Westerville South earlier in the evening sealed up at least a share of the title for Liberty.
Mallory Kramer had 12 points and Michayla Brenning added six points and four rebounds for the Warhawks (1-20, 0-9).
“I kew going into this one that there would be a four-, five-, six-minute stretch where we didn’t score and we’d bang our heads against a wall until we do … it’s just the kind of team that we are,” Liberty coach Sam Krafty said.
It’s been a particularly difficult season for the Patriots (15-7, 8-2) to overcome, not just on the court but, more so, off.
“This team has been through some major stuff,” Krafty said. “The tragic loss of the Casey and Fleming families touched a few kids on the team. The day after that, Bre Yashko’s grandma died and that lady was a role model in Bre’s life.
“Bre tears her ACL about two weeks after that and then Lauren Spicer – one of our sophomores – her dad tragically passed away last week of a heart attack in the middle of (the night).”
This team wasn’t supposed to be as good as the two previous ones. The bar is high at Liberty since its 20-0 start in Krafty’s first season — a prelude the first league title in school history, first district title and regional runner-up.
The seven losses this season are already more than the previous two combined (46-6).
Liberty had a record of 100-129 before he coached a game (the program is now 161-142 since it opened for the 2003-04 school year).
Krafty had the services of two would-be Division I college basketball players in Kristen Levering, who plays at Miami University, and Alexa Fisher, who’s plying her trade at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.
And for the past two seasons the Patriots have had late-season injuries to top scorers. Fisher missed the final eight games of last season with a foot injury after coming back from a torn ACL in the off-season.
Liberty ended up co-champions in its final year of the OCC-Central before exiting in the district semifinals.
This time, the Patriots had to do without Breanna Yashko, who suffered an ACL injury in the Jan. 21 game at Dublin Jerome.
“Without Bre, we’re missing a lot of firepower,” Krafty said. “She was always capable of ending a run with a three here or a three there. Unfortunately, it’s been familiar territory … it’s the same thing that happened to us last year down the stretch.”
It was a tough road even before the loss of Yashko. The Patriots have won six games by four points or less, including their first four wins of the season and their last two. Five of those wins were against league opponents.
Yashko converted a three-point play to put Liberty on top of Hilliard Bradley with 5.5 seconds left in overtime for its first win.
Katie Harrop’s three-pointer with 1:24 left was the difference in a three-point win over rival Olentangy in the second win.
Rival Orange started 27-4 and led 29-13 before Liberty mounted a furious comeback to clip the Pioneers by four in overtime for win number three.
The Patriots rallied for 13 straight points to come back from a seemingly insurmountable nine-point deficit to clip Westerville South 35-31 for its fourth win.
They needed another late 13-point rally to clip Orange in the rematch for their 13th victory of the season.
And lastly, Harrop’s buzzer-beater on her own offensive rebound gave the Patriots a 39-38 win over Westerville North Tuesday night.
A loss in any one of the final five games on the list and Liberty isn’t league champions. A loss in all of them would have finished them a distant fifth.
“This is the (gutsiest), toughest, tightest team that I’ve had here,” Krafty said. “They’ve overcome some minor obstacles and some major obstacles and they just keep tightening it up and playing through adversity.”
But, like a cat with nine lives, Liberty somehow emerged … champion for the third straight year.
“I think it speaks to how tough a team we are and how we stick together,” Harrop said. “We have each others’ backs and we can get each other through anything.”
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.