Liberty's girls basketball team salvaged a great start with a furious finish at home Friday night, holding on to beat Independence 40-34 and remaining unbeaten in the Southwest Yosemite League.
After a 22-6 run had given Independence (11-8, 2-2 SWYL) a late 33-32 lead, Liberty scored eight of the nine points in the game's final minute. Kennedy Nielson hit a floater with 57 seconds to put the Patriots (13-7, 4-0) back in front, Alexis Adjei added a putback and Paxton Lozano and Nielson hit four clutch free throws in the final 15 seconds.
"It just proves we're coming together, that we can handle the pressure," said Riley Helgren, who led Liberty with 15 points.
The victory allows Liberty to go into Wednesday's game at Centennial with both teams unbeaten.
"Oh, that's gonna be it," Liberty coach Terrence Hubbert said. "That's what you play for. Hopefully we'll be ready to play, because we know they'll be ready. It's two of the top teams in the city."
Liberty will be in good shape if it plays like it did in the first half of Friday's game. Helgren hit two 3-pointers and scored 11 first-half points, and the Patriots led 22-9 at halftime.
"We really played well," Helgren said. "I think that's the best stretch we've played all season. But I think we got complacent."
It was 26-11 midway through the third quarter when Independence began its furious comeback.
"They battled," Hubbert said. "Their coaching staff does a fantastic job, and they played hard. It's been our problem all year that we play the first half, but we need two halves."
Vanessa Francisco hit a 3-pointer to bring Independence within 30-23 at the end of three quarters, and Daisy Dellinger scored five points in a row to tie it early in the fourth.
Jazmin Dixon hit two free throws with 1:21 left to give Independence its first lead since it was 4-2, but the Falcons couldn't finish.
"That's been our Achilles Heel, the way we start the game," Independence coach Val Mancera said. "We seem to play our best basketball when we have no other choice. But we had to play perfect to come back."
The Falcons nearly pulled it off, behind nine points from Francisco and 8 each from Dellinger Ebony Sanders, who also had 10 rebounds.
But in the end, the inside-outside game of Liberty was too much: Bragg had 7 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks, and Nielson had 11 points and 5 steals.
"If we aren't hitting our shots, we know they're working hard and they have our back inside," Nielson said. "And if they aren't hitting, we'll have their backs."