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Liberty building to add more championship banners

The league championship banner that hangs high above the North Penn-Liberty basket looks somewhat lonely. Other banners hang nearby, but the Northern Tier League championship banner includes just one line surrounded by empty Red space.

North Penn-Liberty captured that lone league title 29 years ago, two years after current coach Brian Litzelman graduated from there. No district title banners flank that league title banner either. North Penn-Liberty has had some outstanding teams since 1991, but none that has ended the championship drought.

Imagine how hungry then this current North Penn-Liberty team is. The Mounties have put together one of the best first halves in program history and won their eighth straight game in dramatic fashion last Friday, rallying past rival North Penn-Mansfield in the final 26 seconds, 52-49. The North Penn-Liberty gym was packed by the time the JV game tipped off and both fans and players sense that something special could be brewing this season.

“It was great to look up and see a full crowd and see both stands full. It gave us some energy here and there and it’s really important for these kids to have the opportunity to play in front of that,” Litzelman said. “These kids have put in a lot of hard work through the last few offseasons and they have earned this.”

Time will tell if North Penn-Liberty earns that elusive league and/or district championship, but the Mounties (10-1) certainly have established themselves as serious contenders. North Penn-Liberty is perched atop both the NTL-II and District 4 Class A standings. They have earned those positions by sweeping the NTL’s Big School powers, Athens, Wellsboro and North Penn-Mansfield. Liberty also defeated Troy in overtime and has good wins against South Williamsport and Muncy, capturing two tournament championships along the way.

The core of this team has played together the last few years and has attacked the offseason hard. North Penn-Liberty took a step forward last year when it won 13 games, finished second in the NTL-II and came within two points of reaching both the district semifinals and the state tournament. North Penn-Liberty nearly rallied from a 25-point fourth-quarter deficit in that quarterfinal loss against Sullivan County and that game provided fuel going into the offseason.

North Penn-Liberty kept working, kept improving and now is excelling in those close games. When the pressure has been highest this team has been at its best. The Mounties forced overtime against Wellsboro with a last-second 3-pointer before winning, 66-63. It edged Troy in overtime a few nights later and rallied from a 12-point second-quarter deficit against North Penn-Mansfield. North Penn-Liberty trailed with 26 seconds remaining, but Noah Spencer scored seven straight points, including five free throws, and the Mounties defeated their nearby rival for the first time since 2013.

“We’re able to do whatever it takes to come back and take the lead and finish the game out strong,” Spencer said after scoring 26 points, grabbing seven rebounds, dealing seven assists and making four steals. “We’re playing all these large schools and we’re this small school and we’re getting all these wins. It feels so good.”

“It’s a matter of a lot of game experience. These guys have played a ton of games and now in these close games we don’t panic,” Litzelman said. “(Friday) when we were behind we said, ‘We’ve been here. We’ve done this before.’ We just have to go and execute.”

North Penn-Liberty has several players executing well in those big games. Spencer and Duncan Zeafla both average more than 13 points per game and center Brandon Thompson is a defensive difference-maker who has double-double potential every game. Colton Litzelman has emerged as one of the area’s premier sixth men and the Mounties possess depth which some Class A teams can have trouble matching.

This team has a lot of weapons and experience has produced a lot of trust. This is not a collection of individuals, but a hard-working group playing as one. This team has grown up together and now North Penn-Liberty will try attacking history together.

“Those are goals for sure. We just want to keep moving forward,” Spencer said. “A lot of schools don’t have the depth that we have with guys that can come in and score points for their team. Having the team that we do, it’s great because guys can score off the bench and starters can score. We can all score and we can all play and it feels good.”

GROWING UP: North Penn-Mansfield is experiencing some good days as well. The Tigers (6-5) have come a long way since the season opened and remain an NTL-I title contender despite losing the top eight players in last year’s rotation. Logan Tokarz was the only North Penn-Mansfield player who received much playing time last year, but the Tigers have won six of their last eight games and three of their five losses are by 11 combined points.

This team features several weapons and all five starters have produced double-digit scoring performances and average more than seven points per game. All five of those starters can shoot as well and North Penn-Mansfield connected on eight 3-pointers against Liberty. Curtis Craig scored 15 points and grabbed 12 rebounds and Alex Stein (5 assists) is emerging as a quality point guard. Tokarz is among the area’s leading scorers and Brody Burleigh and Sam Lawrence both are providing production off the bench.

Some might have thought this would be a down year for a perennial district and league title contender, but North Penn-Mansfield remains strong and likely will keep improving as players gain more experience playing in tight games like last Friday’s. It also helps that nearly every starter returns next season.

“These guys did not see the court unless we were up 30 last year, so being in that moment is quite a bit different from being in the JV game. There’s definitely a learning curve,” North Penn-Mansfield coach Kipper Burleigh said. “We definitely have some balance. We definitely are unselfish. We just need to execute a little better.”

PUTBACKS: Lewisburg is as hot as any District 4 team right now, winning seven straight games. The Green Dragons highlighted that streak with an impressive 57-51 win at Central Columbia last Friday, rallying from a halftime deficit at a tough venue. Lewisburg is 7-1 since Ben Liscum returned from an injury and both he and Nick Shedleski scored 20 points in the win … Jersey Shore (6-2, 4-0) stayed undefeated in the HAC-I, downing rival Central Mountain, 67-52. Nate Ewing scored 33 points and Alec Carpenter and Damian Williams continued emerging as weapons. Carpenter scored 10 points, grabbed five rebounds and added three assists. Wililams, a sophomore, hits the boards hard and pulled down 13 rebounds. He has five or more rebounds in four straight games … Sullivan County (8-3, 5-1) stayed within one game for St. John Neumann in the Mid-Penn with a dramatic 47-44 win over defending District 4 AA champion Millville. Jalen Thomas hit four straight foul shots in the final minute as Sullivan erased a one-point deficit … Montgomery played Millville tough last week, trailing by just five in the third quarter before losing, 47-32. Sophomores Maurice Walters and Logan Almeida form a nice tandem and Walters scored a career-high 19 points against Neumann two nights later with Almeida adding 17 … Max Rymsza, Gio Persun and Branson Eyer all scored in double figures as Muncy won in front of a large crowd at Bucktail, 52-45 … Ethan Laudenslager scored a career-high 21 points and added six assists in South Williamsport’s 82-57 loss against HAC-III leading Mount Carmel … Wellsboro (7-5) thumped Meadowbrook Christian and Sayre by 77 combined points. Liam Manning recorded a double-double against Sayre and Isaac Keane and Conner Adams combined for 10 steals in the victories … Canton sophomore Isaiah Niemczyk is enjoying a breakout season and averaged 20 points as Canton split games against Troy and Towanda.

1. Loyalsock (12-0): Those who did not see Loyalsock and St. John Neumann play yesterday missed quite a show. The Lancers rallied from a nine-point second-quarter deficit and defeated their local rival, 102-86. The game was sold out before the JVs tipped and the atmsophere was as electric as the play. The good news is that Loyalsock and Neumann already have agreed to continue the series last year after they played for the first time in six years yesterday. This reporter will be writing more about the importance of that agreement in next week’s column and this is a win-win for the entire basketball community.

“We’ve been talking about the game since football season asking who is going to win?,” Aiden Gair said after scoring 44 points. “It was a great game and it was great that the whole city came out to watch it.”

2. Montoursville (7-1): Josh Burger became the fourth different player to lead Montoursville in scoring when he scored a career-high 19 points in Montoursville’s 56-38 win against Milton last Friday. That balance has been critical to the program’s success over the last five years and continues paying dividends this season. Burger, Hunter Shearer, Dillon Young and Peyton Mussina all are averaging more than 10 points per game. Jake Simms is coming on strong inside as well and scored a career-high 14 points against Milton as the Warriors stayed within a game of first place in the HAC-II.

“One night someone might be off and everyone else steps up and we figure out a way to get it done,” Burger said after a 72-26 win against Midd-West. “We’re getting more mature and getting the experience we need. Moving forward, if we keep doing that I think we’ll be in good shape.”

3. Hughesville (10-2): Playing four games in seven nights was not easy, but Hughesville went 3-1 during that stretch, concluding it with a 60-43 win against Southern Columbia. The Spartans currently are seeded No. 2 in the District 4 Class AAA standings and receiving a big lift from Dylan Bieber off the bench. The freshman is averaging 12.3 points over his last three games and has drained 12 3-pointers during that stretch. He scored a career-high 14 points in a 70-47 win at Line Mountain before adding 12 more against Southern. Hughesville drilled 13 3-pointers in that Line Mountain win. Keep an eye on freshman center Carter Cowburn as well. He can open up the perimeter and scored 12 points in the Southern victory.

4. St. John Neumann (9-2): Playing Loyalsock can give Neumann quite a boost moving forward. The Knights also have road games scheduled late this season against district title contenders Montoursville and Bloomsburg and opened the season against Hughesville. Neumann would love to be undefeated, but it has the big picture in mind right now and if these two losses against strong AAA teams is the price to pay for Class A playoff success it will take that trade every day.

“That’s the whole bottom line. We try to play a tougher schedule and playing these guys (Loyalsock) with Coach Insinger and the way those guys go about business can only helps us,” Neumann coach Joe Clark said. “I’m so proud of my kids. They played hard and if you don’t play good teams you’re not ready for the dance.”

5. North Penn-Liberty (10-1): Colton Litzelman opened his season by earning Tournament MVP honors at the Kyle Lynn Tournament. He has grown only better since then and consistently stuffs the stat sheet. The versatile junior can go inside or outside and produced 15 points, nine steals and six rebounds in a 63-33 win at Towanda last Wednesday.

Players of the Week

Aiden Gair, Loyalsock and Sam Carpenter, Sullivan County: Gair has put together some dazzling performances the past two seasons but he went to another level against Neumann, scoring 44 points, dealing four assists, grabbing four rebounds and adding two steals. He scored 23 second-quarter points and made 15 of 16 shots from the line during a 10-minute stretch that bridged the middle quarters, scoring 33 points during that time. Carpenter is putting together a strong senior season and is hurting opponents with his all-around skills. Carpenter came up huge against Millville, scoring 10 points, grabbing 11 rebounds, dealing six assists and making three steals. Carpenter is one of the smaller guards around, but plays like he is 6-5 and provides energy every game.

Game of the Week

Loyalsock at Hughesville: Over the last 15 years, few area rivalries have been as outstanding as this one. That is one reason Saturday’s game looks so appealing. Loyalsock and Hughesville have combined to win 11 district championships during that time with each team reaching the state’s Final 4 once and the Elite 8 multiple times. They have split district semifinal games in two of the last three seasons and both are ranked 1-2 in the current AAA standings. Expect a big crowd, some big plays and an entertaining game as these teams add another chapter to this exciting rivalry.

–Chris Masse may be reached at cmasse@sungazette.com. Follow him on Twitter at @docmasse

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