Liberty makes short work of Dallas, setting up a first-round playoff matchup against Bend

Liberty’s young boys basketball team has grown up a lot this season. On Saturday, the Falcons will get to see just how far they’ve HILLSBORO TRIBUNE PHOTO: CHASE ALLGOOD - Liberty junior Ryan Kaser goes up for a layup during Tuesday's Class 5A state play-in game against Dallas. The Falcons won 62-51 to earn a spot in the 16-team state playoff field, where they will travel for a first-round game 
on Saturday.

Liberty raced to a 62-51 victory over Dallas in a Class 5A play-in game on Tuesday, earning the Falcons a berth in the 16-team state playoff field and setting up a first-round matchup against No. 7 Bend, a team that dismantled the Falcons 57-30 in a holiday tournament back on Dec. 27.

“We played them at a Christmas tournament down there and they jumped on us pretty hard,” Liberty head coach O.J. Gulley said of the teams’ first meeting. “They’re a really good team — they’re big, they can shoot it, they’re well-coached. It’s going to be a tough one.”

Saturday’s game will tip off at 1 p.m. at Bend High School, with a trip to next week’s Class 5A state tournament on the line.

Liberty (17-8) has made huge strides this season despite a starting lineup that doesn’t feature a single senior. The Falcons endured a rough stretch in December and January in which they lost four out of five games, but they’ve lost only four times since then, including two decisions against Northwest Oregon Conference champion and sixth-ranked Sherwood.

With a formidable Bend team next on the docket, Gulley said he’s looking forward to giving the Lava Bears a tougher test than his team did the first time around.

“As coaches we broke down that Bend film, and the difference between where we are now and where we were then is night and day,” Gulley said. “We’re so much different as a team now than we were then. I think we’re a much better team.”

The Falcons showed that on Tuesday, when they easily dispatched a Dallas team that they had also faced earlier this year. The biggest difference in the rematch was that Liberty built a big early lead and never looked back, only allowing Dallas to claw back within shouting distance in the second half after Gulley began substituting liberally.

Koby Alvarado led Liberty with 11 points, and Brayden Bafaro came off the bench to score 11 more. Jacob Mast had eight points before leaving the game with a sprained ankle, but Gulley said he hopes the 6-foot-3 sophomore will be ready to go this weekend.

“I think he’ll be OK,” Gulley said. “He just needs to rest it and stay off it a little bit, but I think he’ll be good to go.”

Liberty built a 16-point halftime lead against Dallas (10-15), the fifth-place finisher in the Mid-Willamette Conference, then continued to apply pressure early in the second half.

“We played pretty well. Midway through the first quarter we started to get into a rhythm and we had a pretty good lead at halftime, which was big for us,” Gulley said. “In the locker room we talked about finishing the job and I thought we did that in the second half.

“It was good to see them doing what we talk about every day in practice.”

Now it’s time for the Falcons to turn their attention to Bend, a team that has won 13 of its last 15 games, most of them by double digits.

“(Dallas) was a good one for us, because I thought we played pretty well and gained some confidence going into the playoffs,” Gulley said. “Bend is going to be a tougher challenge. We’ve seen them already and we know they’re a good team, but we also know that we’re a better team than we were the first time we played them.”

With two items already checked off their to-do list — winning a play-in game and clinching a spot in the state playoffs — the Falcons will now look to fulfill another goal by earning an invitation to the 5A state tournament, which begins next Thursday at Matthew Knight Arena in Eugene.

“Our guys are pretty grounded. We realize we’re a young crew,” Gulley said. “Making the playoffs, that was our goal going in. Now we’ve got one more game and we want to get to Eugene. That’s our goal now.”

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