Senior Kevin Venia insists this year's Liberty High School boys basketball team is far different than the 1998-99 squad that won one game.
And Tuesday night, the Eagles made Venia's word stand as they rallied from an 11-point deficit with 5 minutes 12 seconds remaining to defeat visiting Loudoun County, 64-60, in the Class AA Northwestern District opener for both teams.
"Last year, if we were down by that much, we would have buckled," said Venia, who made a pair of free throws with 11.8 seconds left to ensure the victory. "This year we have some of the same guys, but we have better chemistry."
Liberty also was sparked by sophomore Eddie Gray's three baskets during a crucial 9-2 run that brought it to 60-57 with 2:25 left.
"In the last two fourth quarters, he's been great," Eagles Coach Paul Frye said of the 6-foot-1 forward, who scored all 11 of his points in the final period. "The sky is the limit for him. He doesn't know how good he can be. We just hope he keeps improving."
They feel similarly about Patrick Moore. The 6-3 junior scored nine points and blocked nine shots, including one with under two minutes to play that started a transition downcourt and ended with Venia burying his second three-pointer of the game to tie it at 60.
"I don't think he realizes how tall he is," Venia said. "He's a little timid offensively, but defensively he's aggressive and he gets after it."
After tying the game at 60, Venia then knocked the ball away from Raider point guard Tyler Ramey, and Moore was fouled in the ensuing scramble. Moore made 1 of 2 free throws to put Liberty up 61-60, its first lead since late in the second quarter.
In fact, Loudoun County could get only one shot off in its final five possessions before Doug Poland's desperation three missed the mark with four seconds to play.
Venia ended up with the ball, and as the buzzer sounded, he threw it up in the air and embraced his teammates. He was elated that Liberty doubled its victory total of last season during the first week of the 1999-2000 season.
"It's been a long time since we've won two in a row," Venia said, pointing to the corners of his mouth with a big grin on his face.
For Loudoun County, it was another close defeat. The Raiders lost 49-48 at home to Fauquier on Friday. Loudoun County Coach Chick Bushrod was disappointed with his team's execution down the stretch.
"We couldn't even get a shot off," Bushrod said. "We didn't catch the ball, and we didn't execute. Then on the other end, we either gave them a layup or we fouled them."
Bushrod can take solace in Ramey's performance. The 5-8 freshman scored a game-high 18 points, and it was his three-point play with 5:12 left that gave the Raiders their biggest lead.
"In the first two games, he's been the same," Bushrod said. "People can question whether a freshman should be on varsity, but his statistics don't lie; he can play the game."
Loudoun County (0-2, 0-1)--Ramey 7 3-4 18, Groy 0 1-2 1, Gawrilow 1 2-2 4, Houseknecht 3 0-0 6, Ruggles 4 0-0 8, Washington 1 2-8 4, Welti 2 4-4 8, Stocks 4 3-5 11. Totals: 22 15-25 60.
Liberty (2-1, 1-0)--Lyon 2 0-0 5, Lewis 3 5-5 11, E. Carter 4 3-4 11, Venia 3 3-4 11, Moore 3 3-4 9, Gray 4 5-8 13, J. Carter 0 2-2 2. Totals: 20 21-27 64.
Three-point goals: Loudoun County 1 (Ramey 1); Liberty 3 (Venia 2, Lyon 1).
CAPTION: Raiders' Dave Groy tries to stop Kevin Venia, whose free throws with 11.8 seconds left secured win for Liberty. Eagles won just one game last season.