Liberty defeats Avon Park for title

SEBRING - Kissimmee's Liberty ended Avon Park's remarkable run in the 35th annual Taveniere Tournament Saturday night, avenging an earlier loss to the Red Devils as the Chargers thumped them by a score of 43-24 in Blue Streaks Gym.

The loss dropped Class 4A Avon Park to 12-4 overall on the season while Class 7A Liberty improved to 12-4.

"I knew the second time we played Liberty, they'd be a lot tougher to beat," said Devils coach Marty O'Hora. "And to play three games in three nights, we came a long way. So to finish second knowing the kids played hard is a good way to go out."

Avon Park was one of three Highlands County teams in action on Saturday. Sebring and Lake Placid played afternoon games, with the Blue Streaks getting thrashed by Lakeland 85-45 while Frostproof romped the Green Dragons 65-36.

In the opening period of Avon Park's match up against Liberty, the Devils found themselves down early, as the Chargers opened up a 6-1 run to start the game. Behind some scrappy play from senior Alfred Brown, Avon Park managed to tie the game at six apiece, and finished the quarter trailing by just two points, 10-8.

The Devils continued to trade baskets with Liberty in the second quarter, but after jumper from John Mason pulled Avon Park within five, the Chargers went on another run, finishing out the half up by eight, 20-12.

"Liberty just wanted it more than we did," O'Hora said. "They seemed to get every loose ball and we were missing easy layups and couldn't seem to get it going from the outside."

Avon Park turned things around somewhat in the second half.

But feisty defense from Liberty forced the Devils into a slew of contested layups, many of which they couldn't convert. The few offensive rebounds Avon Park did manage to pull down, the Devils second chance shots were blocked by the Chargers' towering forward, 6-foot-7 Rickenjee Bellevue.

"I thought our effort was a lot better in the second half," O'Hora said. "But Liberty did a good job at exposing our weaknesses inside and we just didn't match how physical they were."

By the end of the third period, the Chargers had pushed their lead to 31-18, and they widened the gap to 41-20 early in the fourth quarter.

Despite the deficit, Avon Park continued to hustle, but the Devils had simply run out of time. Gus Owens led the team in scoring for the second time in the tournament, finishing with a team-high seven points. Brown was behind him with five, while Mason and Tyrone Perry each added four.

The loss didn't set the Devils back too badly, as they're still in first place in their district with an impressive 5-1 record. But Avon Park will have little time to enjoy a second place finish in the tournament - bitter rival Sebring is waiting for them on Friday. The game should be an intense rubber match, since the Devils beat the Blue Streaks in the opening round of the tournament inside Sebring's own gym. The rematch will be played in Avon Park.

"It's officially the second half of the season," O'Hora said. "So if you asked me how we'd look through 16 games, I'd take 12-4. All of our losses were to quality teams. And after Sebring, we've got some tough competition, so we'll be getting ready this week."

The Devils and Streaks are scheduled to tip off at 7:30 p.m.