Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2009 | 1:38 a.m.
Palo Verde's game against Liberty on Monday provided a continuous cycle of one-upmanship.
The Panthers' Moses Morgan brought the crowd to its feet with a big dunk in the fourth quarter. Then Liberty's Kenneth Peters answered with a steal and a dunk of his own. Neither team would allow themselves to get out-performed.
Each time one team would open up a lead, the other would strike back, creating a back and forth contest until Palo Verde's clutch free throw shooting made the difference, sealing the Panthers birth to the state tournament with a 68-63 victory.
"We knew this game was going to be a battle," Palo Verde coach Jermone Riley said. "We knew this was going to be an up and down game."
The win puts Palo Verde (23-5) up against Eldorado Thursday at the Orleans Arena in the first round of the state tournament.
Both teams held a share of the lead in the fourth quarter, but Palo Verde's success from the charity stripe made all the difference. Morgan, Davion Pearson and D.J. Stennis all hit clutch free throws late in the game, and Liberty could not convert offensively when it needed points.
With about 15 seconds left and trailing by three, Liberty had the ball with the chance to tie the game, but Palo forced a turnover and Stennis made two foul shots with 10.8 seconds left to stretch the lead to five and put the game out of reach.
"That was just two good teams battling it out," Liberty head coach Pat Welby said. "It was fun, just two fighters trading punches."
The game started out the way Liberty (18-9) wanted, and the Patriots took a three-point lead into the locker room at halftime.
In the second half, two of Palo Verde's key players, Stennis and Morgan, started to find success. The pair combined for just three first-half points, but Morgan had a big second half and went on the lead the Panthers with 16 points. Stennis, who had struggled from the foul line earlier in the game, hit the two key foul shots for Palo Verde and ended up with 13 points on the night.
"We were really rushing at the beginning of the game," Riley said. "We were trying to go one-on-one and that's not our style of basketball."
Morgan, who scored 32 points against Liberty earlier in the season, showed his range of talent in the second half. He knocked down a three-pointer, drove to the hoop for layups and was a perfect 6-6 from the foul line.
"Moses is going to average his 16-17 points, it's just a matter of time for him to get his shots," Riley said. "Instead of forcing it, he allowed it to come to him."
Every time Liberty needed a big shot, Kenneth Peters seemed to end up with the ball in his hands. He made three three-pointers and finished with a game-high 20 points in his final high school game.
Fellow seniors Cameron Peters and Milos Knezevic also had big games for the Patriots, finishing with 17 and 14 points, respectively.
The loss brings an end to the high school careers of Knezevic and the Peters brothers, who helped the Patriots win 59 games over the last three seasons.
"We've had those guys for what seems like forever, and it's going to be hard to see them go," Welby said. "But they put our school on the map, put our program on the map."
In the state tournament, Palo Verde goes up against an Eldorado team it beat 103-92 in the regular season.
When asked how he feels about his team's chances, Riley just smiled and said, "Anything can happen."
Garrett Downing can be reached at [email protected] or 948-7803