LIBERTY - It was a good day for Stephan Elash - before, during and after he and Campbell took on Liberty in an All-American Conference, National Division clash.
Prior to the game, his girlfriend asked him to be her "sweetheart" for Valentine's Day, and things only got better from there.
Campbell made several big plays in the final minutes, none bigger than Elash's go-ahead free throw with 39 seconds remaining, and the Red Devils completed a fourth-quarter comeback to beat Liberty, 51-48.
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Liberty’s Cameron Clark, behind, makes a move on Campbell’s George Billiris (3) as he drives to the basket during second-quarter action.
Campbell (11-5, 7-2 AAC) trailed by six entering the fourth quarter, and the Leopards (10-8) had the momentum on their side. That quickly changed in the fourth.
"Our coach just told us, 'We gotta fight. We can't back down,' " said Elash as he held a heart-shaped balloon and candy from his soon-to-be valentine. "So we just fought hard on defense, got a few fast breaks and the next thing you know, I'm at the free-throw line."
Elash gave the Red Devils their first lead of the second half, 49-48, after he was ouled driving to the hoop. He missed the second free throw, but Campbell's George Billiris grabbed the rebound and laid it in to put the Red Devils up, 51-48.
Snagging loose balls was something Campbell did a lot of in the fourth quarter, and that infuriated Liberty coach Dan Bubon.
"They played with much more aggression than we did at the end to get those loose balls, to get those rebounds, to get to the basket and get fouled, to take the lead and to get the offensive rebound off the missed free throw," Bubon said. "Those are just all things that should be simple at this point, and we're struggling with it."
Liberty still had a chance, and despite a missed 3-pointer, the Leopards got another shot with 9.2 seconds left when Campbell traveled bringing the ball up court. Liberty's leading scorer, Asim Pleas, brought the ball up court but faced a triple team and quickly passed to Cameron Clark, who was waiting in the corner. A Campbell defender was waiting as well and blocked Clark's 3-point attempt as time expired.
Campbell coach Mike Szenborn said the late rally was made possible because of the energy that D.J. Harrison brought off the bench. He scored eight of his 14 points in the final quarter to help bring Campbell back.
"He shot the ball extremely well tonight," Szenborn said of Harrison, who made all four of the 3-pointers he attempted. "He gave us a little spark on the defensive end and was aggressive on the offensive end. That's what we needed. He's a great attribute off the bench."
Pleas led all scorers with 20 points, 17 of which came in the first half. He was the catalyst in Liberty fighting back from an early nine-point deficit. The senior saw mostly double teams in the second half, which is when Clark caught fire, scoring 11 of his 15.
The Leopards, who dedicated their court to former coach Pete Prokop with a ceremony before the game, made several key plays in the third quarter to maintain their lead, but a lack of energy in the fourth spoiled a day that brought several Liberty alumni back to town.
"We just haven't been in a good mental place lately," Bubon said. "Our mood's been down. We seem to have less and less guys we had seven varsity players tonight for a variety of reasons. I've just got to find a way to get our energy up. We've played with energy in spurts, but just not long enough. Tonight, at the very end, every loose ball and rebound went to them and I mean every single one. They had six straight chances on the one possession. It's frustrating that we're that close, and the end of this game was one of the most frustrating of the year."
The dedication to Prokop was long in the making. Prokop, who enjoyed a tremendous amount of success in the 1950s and 60s, was named the coach of the century by the Tribune Chronicle in 1999 and led Liberty to numerous district and regional championships as well as a state runner-up finish in 1961. Bubon said he met the late Prokop a few years ago and was honored to coach on a court named after him.
"The accomplishments he had were legendary," he said. "I hope I could do half of what he did. Coach of the century. How do you beat that?"