Cedar Park found itself in an unfamiliar situation Wednesday night inside the Alamodome — in a close game.
The Timberwolves had only played one game within single digits all year, and it was their only loss of the season against Cibolo Steele.
But the top-ranked team in 5A matched up blow-for-blow against arguably one of the most physical teams in the state, a reigning champion Frisco Liberty (22-9) that doesn’t know the meaning of quit.
Even when Cedar Park (27-1) pushed its lead to 12 in the third period, the Redhawks closed the gap to one by the end of the quarter, seemingly poised to take the lead. But with two minutes left to play, Gisella Maul’s crucial And-1 layup gave her team the four-point cushion that eventually led to Cedar Park's 46-39 win in the 5A state championship. Cedar Park played the Redhawks’ game and won.
“Everybody said that if it was a close game, that Liberty had it in the bag,” Cedar Park point guard Sarai Estupinan said. “But we trusted our teammates and trusted our coaches in that moment and really, it was just a team effort.”
Frisco Liberty thrives off slow, methodical basketball while head coach Donny Ott’s team likes to kick up the tempo. Ott knew heading into the game, the clash of styles would likely go in Liberty and head coach Ross Reedy’s favor. So, they had to match it.
“We knew that if we could stay close and get over the hump, that we would love being in those situations,” Reedy said. “But the two times we cut it to one, we had some uncharacteristic defensive busts, but you have to give credit to them because one, they run good action but also because (Shelby Hayes) warrants so much attention.”
The biggest difference-maker might've been Cedar Park’s fast start, jumping out to an early 7-0 lead. The Redhawks’ scheme works best when controlling a small lead rather than playing catch-up. Ott’s team never trailed in the game thanks to strong interior play and rebounding from his seniors and junior center Shelby Hayes who finished with a game-high eight. The Timberwolves out-rebounded Liberty by 11 and both teams combined for less than 70 total shots in the game.
“We knew they were going to try and dictate the tempo and make us play their style,” Ott said. “We were slowing too much. We could at least push and make them get back, even if we didn’t get a transition score, but we weren’t doing that as much. Once we settled in, I thought the third quarter was much better and we got out of our full-court because I felt we could defend them in the half-court well if we matched up.
It was Cedar Park’s first-ever trip to the Alamodome for state after getting upset last season by College Station in the regional finals.
“Twenty-one years in this man, it’s the greatest feeling I’ve had in my life outside of marrying my wife and having my two kids. I think what makes it so good is the fact that I know we worked hard for it and it wasn’t given to us," Ott said.