Russell Morton regularly wears No. 24 on his Liberty basketball jersey in honor of his favorite NBA player, Kobe Bryant.
He paid tribute to the Los Angeles Lakers legend Friday night by scoring a team-high 29 points while helping the Eagles rally from a 14-point halftime deficit to beat Fauquier’s boys 86-79 at home in Bealeton.
“My favorite player of all time,” Morton said of Bryant.
“It just came into my head that I needed to keep shooting” after the first few shots went in, he said of his performance Friday. “I got in the flow of the game and my teammates did a great job feeding me.”
His Eagles poured in 60 points during the second half with Morton doing his best Bryant impression by scoring 18 points in the fourth quarter alone, only five days after Bryant died in a helicopter crash.
Morton “wasn’t feeling well this week and he seemed a little down,” Eagles coach Pat Frazer said. “So I am so proud of him doing that tonight. The guys fed him and he had confidence.”
The Liberty junior dominated the fourth quarter, making two of his three 3-pointers in the game to give the Eagles a 6-5 record in the Class 4 Northwestern District with an 11-8 mark overall, while the Falcons fell to 4-7 and 8-8.
Derrick Brooks played similarly well in the second half with 17 of his 19 points in the third quarter while Bryan Barnes scored 15 of his 19 after halftime. Tre’Von White added 13 points in the game while Nehamiah Gaskins contributed six points in relief of Sean Doores, who battled foul trouble.
But none of those Liberty players outdid Fauquier senior guard Devin Lewis, who scored a game-high 34 points and helped the Falcons build a 40-26 lead by halftime to put his team in position to beat Liberty. That strong early performance by Fauquier reminded Frazer of the Eagles challenging Jan. 3 win over Fauquier, 64-55.
“Because they were dominating the boards,” he said of both games. “They were doing a really good job and Devin [Lewis] was able to get penetration.”
So Fauquier’s potential upset Friday looked particularly inevitable after the first half ended with a Kyle Dargis 3-pointer off the backboard at the buzzer, giving the Falcons a 14-point lead.
“I thought we did a nice job executing defensively and offensively in the first half,” Fauquier coach Wayne Brizzi said. “Then in the second half they did a nice job pressuring us.
“We couldn’t take care of the ball and then they got hot,” he said. “They are very athletic. They came out a lot more aggressive after halftime.”
At the start of the second half, controlled chaos orchestrated by the Eagles changed the narrative. Liberty came out of the locker room fast and deliberate with a 15-2 run, all but erasing the 14-point deficit in three minutes.
In the third quarter alone, Brooks thrice charged to the basket and drew a foul while making a field goal.
“I felt like we needed some kick-starter plays,” he said. “To get the momentum swinging.”
Fauquier had no match for Brooks’ physical play.
“We look for him,” Frazer said. “Sometimes … we get him with a little steam towards the basket, which really helps.”
Despite Liberty’s run after halftime, the Falcons fought back to trim their deficit to 53-51 with back-to-back 3-pointers by junior Thurman Smith, who finished with 23 points. Fauquier’s Marc Bonnaire added eight points, Evan Jackson had seven and Dargis had five, but the Eagles still took the lead for good early in the fourth quarter.
So now Liberty has the goal of finishing third in the Class 4 Northwestern District with an upcoming pivotal game against James Wood as both teams trail Millbrook and Handley in the standings. Frazer hopes his team can find a balance in their pace and aggressiveness.
“We put pressure on [Fauquier in the second half], but at the same time we know we can’t play like that the whole game,” he said. “We certainly don’t want to get down by double digits, but it is hard to keep that pace up the whole game.”