By TED RADICK
VANLUE — Liberty-Benton already had a Blanchard Valley Conference championship in hand before the Eagles walked into the auditorium at Vanlue High School on Friday.
Still, Liberty-Benton still had a point to prove.
The Eagles rallied from five points down in the third quarter to complete an unbeaten run through the BVC with a 45-32 victory over the Wildcats.
Liberty-Benton, ranked second in the Associated Press Division III poll, improved to 19-1 overall and completed BVC play at 9-0. Vanlue fell to 14-6, 5-4.
“We didn’t want to come in here, lose the game and have everyone think we backed into being BVC champs,” Liberty-Benton guard Adam Cytlak said.
“We wanted to be able to say we’re 9-0, we deserve it and that we’re the best team.
“I think that’s what we did here tonight, and I’m really proud of our guys. We really played hard.”
Two things turned the tide for the Eagles in the second half: Their defense forced turnovers, and their work on the offensive boards provided valuable second-chance points.
“I thought in the second half, we really got after them,” Cytlak said. “We took the ball out of (Linden Smith’s) hands, and we didn’t let (Zach) Garber get any easy buckets. He got some easy baskets in the first half.”
Garber went 6 of 6 from the floor in the first half as Vanlue took an 18-16 lead into intermission.
Dylan Watson’s follow-up off an offensive board gave the Wildcats their largest lead of the night at 23-18 early in the second half, but Vanlue struggled to score after that as L-B ramped up the defensive pressure.
Cylak broke a 28-28 tie with a putback off on an offensive board with 2:40 left in the third, part of an 8-0 Liberty-Benton run that swung the game in the Eagles’ favor.
Liberty-Benton took a 34-30 lead into the fourth quarter and forced six of Vanlue’s 14 total turnovers in the final period, when the Eagles outscored Vanlue 11-2.
“Mitch Linhart got three steals late in the ballgame when they were trying to lob the ball into Garber,” Liberty-Benton coach Steve Williman said.
“I thought that was the turning point of the ballgame, because we were able to go to the other end and finish some plays.”
Liberty-Benton held Garber, who finished with a game-high 19 points, to one basket in the final 13 minutes.
“We knew coming into the game we had to take him away, because it’s not just about his scoring,” Linhart said.
“He can make a lot of plays for the other guys on the floor, too. We just had an emphasis on having two players on him whenever he caught it.”
Cytlak and John Darnall, meanwhile, paced the Eagles on the offensive end.
Each finished with a team-high 12 points — Cytlak had 10 points and and six rebounds in the second half while Darnall scored eight points after halftime.
Several of their baskets came in transition after Vanlue turnovers. Others came following one of Liberty-Benton’s 10 offensive rebounds.
“That something’s we talk about, getting out and getting easy buckets,” Cytlak said.
“That’s what we wanted to do all game, and we didn’t get them early on. We picked up the tempo on them and got after them, and found some turnovers and easy buckets.”
Liberty-Benton’s defense was especially key as the Eagles struggled with their shooting, particularly during the first half as L-B was 6 of 23 from the floor.
“I thought our execution throughout the ballgame was pretty good, but we just weren’t able to finish plays,” Williman said. “I told the kids at halftime, I thought we were getting good looks and executing well.
“We were hoping things would turn for us in the second half. Those steals were huge for us as we were trying to build our lead and secure things.”
Even when L-B wasn’t getting turnovers, the Wildcats found the going tough on the offensive end. Vanlue was forced to reset its offense on many occasions and took just 30 field-goal attempts, hitting 14.
“The game was very physical, and we weren’t ready for that physicality,” Vanlue coach Dean Birchmeier said. “They were eventually able to take us out of a lot of things.”
Garber grabbed a game-high 12 rebounds for the Wildcats. Cytlak led Liberty-Benton with eight rebounds. Zach Garver had 10 points and four rebounds.
Liberty-Benton (19-1, 9-0 BVC)
Cytlak 4-4—12, Darnall 3-6—12, Geise 1-2—5, Garver 4-0—10, Linhart 3-0—6, Maag 0-0—0. TOTALS: 15-46 12-12—45.
Vanlue (14-6, 5-4)
Clymer 1-0—3, Hagerty 0-0—0, L. Smith 1-0—3, Garber 9-0—19, Watson 1-0—2, A. Smith 2-0—5. TOTALS: 14-30 0-5—32.
Liberty-Benton 9 7 18 11 — 45
Vanlue 6 12 12 2 — 32
3-Point GOALS: Liberty-Benton 3-17 (Garver 2, Geise); Vanlue 4-14 (Clymer, L. Smith, A. Smith, Garber).
rebounds: Liberty-Benton 25 (Cytlak 8); Vanlue 22 (Garber 12).
turnovers: Liberty-Benton 5, Vanlue 14.
junior varsity: Liberty-Benton, 57-33.