Bellevue High School has looked like a top team in the state for the majority of the year, but not from the start, with Liberty High School jumping on the scene with an impressive seven-point win back on Dec. 4.
Two months later, the two have had similar paths — but Bellevue has been able to avoid defeat to a league opponent since that Dec. 4 matchup. Liberty, however, had lost twice in the league.
Liberty and the Wolverines were matched up for a third time this season, but this game had a bit more on the line with it being the KingCo Championship. Liberty under Omar Parker is no stranger to the KingCo Tournament finale — the Patriots have made it three times in a row.
But in those two previous dates in the championship, Liberty is 0-2 and has lost by 11 in 2022, and 30 in 2023. This year the Patriots were right with the Wolverines, but couldn’t summit the mountain that is KingCo.
On Feb. 7, Liberty fell to Bellevue by a final of 68-58, their closest championship game in the schools KingCo history.
For a game with so much on the line, Liberty did not have its best game, yet competed with one of the better 3A teams in the state.
“It wasn’t our best game,” Head Coach Omar Parker said. “To beat a team of that caliber and that amount of talent, we’ve got to play our best game.”
But to beat a team the quality of the Wolverines, you have to be clicking in all facets of the game. The Patriots were just a little off.
“Down the stretch our effort was there. There isn’t a lot of quit in our coaching staff or our team. I just wish we would have executed our offensive and defensive game plans a little bit better,” Parker said.
Jackson Whitaker is confident this game won’t stay on the minds of the Patriots for very long.
“I think we’re good. I think we are going to bounce back on Saturday,” Whitaker said.
The first quarter was back and forth with both sides grasping for some momentum. The Patriots were holding a 9-8 lead early, before Bellevue took over and closed out the quarter 15-11.
From that point forward, Liberty was chasing the Wolverines. It seemed as if Bellevue was just a bit better overall and was starting to separate themselves from the Patriots taking a nine-point lead into halftime.
The atmosphere created by students and fans was one that Liberty was trying to feed off, with a solid student turnout from both sides traveling to Lake Washington High School.
“Our bench was really good today. They were really the only reason we could really hear the plays. Our student section was awesome as always,” Whitaker said.
Coming out of halftime, Liberty grabbed some early momentum, cutting the lead to six points. But Bellevue answered and didn’t let the Patriots close the window.
Moments before the fourth quarter, Liberty was only down three points. It seemed like the marathon the Patriots were running to catch up to the one seed was coming to an end. But a turnover and a Bellevue basket gave the Wolverines a five-point lead with one quarter left, 48-43.
The fourth quarter was more of the same. Liberty would find a way to cut the lead down to two possessions and just could find a way to close the gap. With under 2:30 left, Liberty was down 59-54 and two costly and uncharacteristic turnovers from Denali Hatcher gave Bellevue two breakaway baskets to put Liberty to bed.
Hatcher, Max Vermeulen and Jackson Whitaker combined for 89% of the Patriots’ scoring against Bellevue. But the three of them never quite clicked as a unit. There were spurts where they individually played well, but were just off as a collective.
“I felt like the effort was there. I just don’t know if mentally we were as solid as we have been at times,” said Parker.
Metro has been the dominant league in WIAA basketball at the 3A level over the past six years. Eight teams in the finals since 2018 excluding 2021 (COVID) have been out of the Metro League.
“We have to be committed on defense and have an offensive resolve that is committed to getting great shots. We’re going to have to be super physical, despite being undersized on the glass. If we have a hot night we can beat anybody,” Parker said.