By Michael Rich
Olentangy Liberty couldn’t overcome a slow start and fell at Westerville North 69-57 in the first round of the Division I boys basketball district tournament Saturday night in Westerville.
Connor Ledford and Corey Benton had 17 points and five rebounds apiece to pace North, which built a 14-point lead in the first half and never trailed.
“We’ve been down double-digits on the road,” Patriots coach Greg Nossaman said. “We didn’t shoot it really well and I thought they shot it really well (in the first half). I didn’t think they were going to shoot as well in the second half … and knew we were going to shoot it better.”
Jeremiah Keene and Julius Brown each converted steals into layups as North built a 9-2 lead in the first two minutes and 19 seconds.
Brown opened the game with a bucket and Keene found Benton for three shortly after. North (13-10) built a 17-6 lead by the end of the first quarter.
Ledford came off the bench and converted an old-fashioned three-point play to extend the North lead to 22-8 with 6:51 left in the first half for its largest lead of the game.
Liberty (10-13) scored eight of the next 10 points, three by Drew Rosi, who assisted on a three-pointer by Ethan Novy. Brendon White cut it to 24-16 on a basket with 4:17 remaining.
North pushed it back up when Benton put-back a miss after a steal by Austin Bennett with 50 seconds left.
Spencer Mitchell hit a three-pointer for the Patriots to cut it back to nine before Brown found Josh Moyler for a bucket with one second left to give North a 34-23 edge heading to the break.
The teams exchanged baskets in the third until Rosi put-back a miss with 3:05 to go to spark a 9-0 run for Liberty.
White scored seven points during the run to help the Patriots close within 44-42 at the end of the third.
“(White) did a nice job attacking the rim … so did Drew,” Nossaman said.
But Liberty couldn’t gain the lead. North opened the fourth 10-3 to create distance again. Ledford opened the frame with another put-back and Benton found him later in the period for a layup. Benton led North with five assists.
Ben Roderick hooked up with Mitchell and Liberty trailed 54-45 with 4:24 remaining.
White scored four of the next six points and assisted on the other basket to help the Patriots draw within five with 3:09 left, but North closed 9-for-10 at the free throw line to put the game on ice. Benton went 5-for-6 at the stripe down the stretch and 7-for-8 in the final frame.
“They made their free throws down the stretch and they’re a little quicker than we are,” Nossaman said. “They’re tough to guard with our guards.”
White led Liberty with 25 points, seven rebounds and four steals. Rosi scored 12 points and had five rebounds and three blocks while Mitchell added 11 points and four rebounds.
Eight of Liberty’s 13 losses this season were by 10 points or less, including four by two points or less. The Patriots were 3-4 in games decided by three points or less.
“We had so many close games down the stretch,” Nossaman said. “This game going into the fourth quarter was a two-point game.”
Mitchell and Anthony Little played their final games for the Patriots.
Mitchell came on strong this season and became Liberty’s most consistent scoring threat. He scored nine or more points in all 23 games this season.
“He’s a kid that didn’t play much as a junior and he hung tough and worked hard,” Nossaman said. “Anthony Little (is in the) same boat. They started in April and didn’t miss a weight (session) or an open gym and worked hard and had fun. That’s the only two left in a senior class where we had 13 when they were freshmen.”
Nossaman said after the game that he was unsure whether White will play next season or not. The Ohio State commit may focus on football his senior year.
“I don’t know his status for next year,” Nossaman said.
Otherwise, Liberty will return eight off its varsity roster this season, including six juniors and two freshmen.
“We’ve got some good, young kids coming back,” Nossaman said. “We’ll take a month off and get back in April and get after it again.”
North will host Pickerington North in the second round Friday night at 7 p.m.
Follow Michael Rich on Twitter @mrichdelgazette.