Mar. 7—GASTON — The play seemed to be working.
Christian Nunn — who was spectacular throughout the second half — drove the lane and predictably drew a pair of Cowan defenders. So the Liberty Christian junior sent the ball out to the wing and a waiting Zack Jeffers.
But the 3-point shot that would have given the Lions the lead didn't fall. Eric Troutman was in the lane, however, and pulled down the rebound.
But his follow also wouldn't fall. By the time, Cedric Anderson pulled down a second offensive rebound time had expired.
The Blackhawks erupted with the euphoria of a second consecutive sectional championship as their crowd roared its approval. The Lions were left to begin a long offseason ruminating over the missed opportunities in a 55-53 championship game loss Saturday at Wes-Del's Robert E. Johnson Gymnasium.
"It'll bite them in the rear end, and it just comes down to attention to detail," Liberty Christian coach Jason Chappell said. "I don't want to negate anything that these boys have done this year. I mean, they finished with a 16-9 record. They had some really, really good wins. But we didn't get it done tonight.
"We just didn't get it done tonight. Cowan was the better team. It was a great played game, but we had some things not go our way. That's just how the ball bounces."
Cowan snapped a 44-year sectional championship drought last year with a victory against Daleville in the final. But the Blackhawks were robbed of the opportunity to play in their first regional game since 1976 because of the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic.
Real tragedy struck in October when head coach Lee Ingles was killed in a car accident on Interstate 69 near Anderson.
Aaron Groves took over the program to navigate the pandemic-altered season and led a veteran team back to the top of the sectional field.
For a while Saturday, it appeared as though the Blackhawks (15-8) might surge to a repeat victory. With 6-foot-10 center Riley Duncan blocking the driving lanes and a deliberate half-court style slowing the pace, Cowan effectively took the Lions out of their game.
Liberty Christian struggled to respond, shooting just 10-for-33 (33.3%) in the first half and going into the locker room with a five-point deficit. The shooting woes continued early in the third quarter, and Cowan pushed its lead to seven points on several occasions.
"We just didn't shoot very well, and we had some freak-out moments," Chappell said. "It is what it is. So the guys are disappointed, but that's part of it."
The Lions forced a higher tempo with a full-court press about midway through the third quarter, and then Nunn — who finished with a game-high 28 points — asserted himself.
His old-fashioned three-point play with 4:47 remaining in the game cut the deficit to 45-44, and Troutman's driving layup moments later gave Liberty Christian the lead for the first time in the second half. After Jacob Thomas made the front end of a one-and-one for the Blackhawks, Nunn and Troutman made consecutive baskets to put the Lions in front 50-46 with 3:12 to play.
After Duncan made a pair of free throws at the 2:56 mark, Liberty Christian attempted to stall. But Thompson stole a pass with a nifty move near the sideline and drove for a tying layup.
The Lions appeared to take a major momentum boost when Jeffers nailed a 3-pointer from the corner and was fouled with 1:40 remaining. He missed the free throw, but Adonis House pulled down the offensive rebound. His follow also missed, and Thomas — who led the Blackhawks with 20 points — tied the game at 53-all on a 3-pointer with 1:24 left.
Following a Liberty Christian turnover, Duncan — who finished with 17 points and 15 rebounds — scored on a putback with 39 seconds left that proved to be the game winner.
Nunn drove the lane and was fouled with 35 seconds remaining but missed both shots. He was 4-for-10 at the free-throw line, and the Lions were 6-for-13 overall.
Thomas also had a chance to extend the lead but missed the front end of a one-and-one with 24 seconds left. Nunn pulled down the rebound — the last of his team-high 12 for his second double-double in three tournament games — and Liberty Christian called a timeout with 9.8 seconds left to set up the finishing sequence.
House finished with 12 points and nine rebounds after posting double-doubles in each of the first two postseason games for the Lions, and Liberty Christian won the rebounding battle 42-34. But the Lions shot just 36.5% (23-of-63) from the field and couldn't overcome their missed opportunities.
Liberty Christian will say goodbye to three seniors — starter Aidan Smith and key reserves Joshua Cabello and Spencer Lamb.
"These kids work hard, and they spend a lot of time together — especially through this (pandemic)," Chappell said. "The big miracle isn't making it to the sectional finals (for the first time since 2017). It's that we got to play a season. There are people in other states that didn't get to do that.
"We did. I'm grateful for that, thankful for that, but I'm disappointed in the outcome."