Ben Isai's young Valley Vista boys basketball team picked an ideal time to reveal its growth.
In the Monsoon's second visit to Liberty this season, they limited turnovers, made most correct decisions about when to attack the Lions' press and when to pull back and hit eight three-point shots to blunt the hosts' advantage from deep.
And this time around, on Valentine's Day, a spot in the main 6A playoff bracket was in the offing. No. 19 Valley Vista (13-14) seized control in the second quarter and never let No. 14 Liberty get closer than eight in the second half of a 75-67 victory.
It is the first time in 13 seasons of varsity play that Valley Vista qualified for the playoffs in Arizona's big school division. The Monsoon will be the #16 seed and face #1 Phoenix Desert Vista (24-3) at 7 p.m. Wednesday night.
"We watched a lot of video and scouted a lot. Coach Wood does a great job. We knew if we could beat the press and slow it down we could get the win. You saw our youth at the end," Valley Vista coach Ben Isai said. "The best thing is that these boys genuinely love each other. The younger guys made a promise to get the older guys one more. No matter if we win or lose on the scoreboard, we've already won."
It was Liberty's type of game for the first four minutes, as the host built an 8-4 lead off three Monsoon turnovers. But when both teams went to their bench, the often stellar Lions reserves took a backs eat to their counterparts.
Backup wings Eddie Zuniga and David Aysho scored the last five points to give the visitors a 17-15 lead after one. Then, a one-night-only reserve tilted things their way for the rest of the night.
Junior guard Dwight McKnight sat out the first quarter for a team rules violation, then took over. McKnight scored six points before half and broke down the press to set up layups and threes for freshman guard Aadem Isai.
"If Dwight can get his confidence up, we'll be unstoppable. He's an amazing force," Ben Isai said. "Him coming off the bench is not a norm. He's done some things that he needs to clean up so we'll get there."
His son led all scorers with nine at the half and 19 points overall.
As expected Liberty hit its share of threes, six in the first half. However, the theme all night was the good looks for the Lions that rimmed out.
"We got a lot of good looks in transition and the ball didn't bounce in," Liberty coach Mark Wood said. "We had some really good looks from three rattle in and out three or four times."
They needed those treys due to Valley Vista's ability to protect the rim. Big men Demari Hackett and Curtis Nichols and wings Aysho and Elijah Thomas blocked or changed several Liberty driving attempts.
Thomas had the highlight-reel plays of the game in the second quarter - a tip dunk to give the Monsoon a 23-19 lead and a block of a Lion dunk later in the half.
Thomas did a bit of everything, mixing his drives with a pair of second-half threes for 16 points and dominating the glass with 17 rebounds.
"He's a double-double kid and he's not 100 percent yet. He's young and didn't play varsity last year but he's stepping up," Isai said. "That block he had was amazing."
Valley Vista ended the first half on a 7-0 run for a 39-30 halftime lead and its momentum only snowballed from there.
Isai (7 points), McKnight (6) and Thomas (5) took over the third quarter to push the lead to 61-40.
"We're not there yet. Once we get there you'll know because (Aadem) can shoot better than he's shooting now. They got hi in the right spots, and if you put ET and Aadem in the right spots, it's scary," Ben Isai said.
Junior guard Miles Guliford hit three free throws and junior forward Patrick Steitz drained a trey to end the third. Steitz started the fourth with another triple to cut the home team's deficit to 61-49.
Thomas and Isai immediately answered from long range and Valley Vista was up 18 again. Liberty came back in earnest from that point as senior forward Jacob Patterson scored nine in the quarter.
But the hole was too deep.
"I'm proud of our guys. They gave everything they had. I thought right until the end we had a shot," Wood said. "Props to Valley Vista. They shot the ball well and rebounded well. That's a really good team and when you get to the playoffs, they're all good teams."
Liberty maxed out this season, particularly in light of losing three of its expected top six players within the first 10 games. Seniors Patterson and guard Brigham Montez guided a young rotation to second place in the Desert Valley Region.
Like the Mosoon, the Lions also are young. Eight of the 10 players that saw the most time should be back.
Those returning players will be charged with replicating this group's special chemistry.
"I don't mean to play semantics but they achieved. They achieved to their maximum. I just wish they could have kept it going for them. I wanted them to stay together as long as possible because they're such a special group," Wood said. "This team did everything they could.