STRUTHERS - Throughout the day on Tuesday, Asim Pleas couldn't get away from the hype surrounding him reaching the 1,000-point milestone.
The Liberty senior needed 16 points in the Leopards' matchup with Struthers at the Struthers Fieldhouse to amass 1,000 points in his career, and his classmates kept pestering Pleas about it. All the emphasis on his accomplishment showed, as Pleas managed just one point in the second quarter and had 10 at the half.
"It was a lot of pressure," Pleas said. "So, I was a little bit nervous, but at halftime, I came back down, recuperated and just went out and played basketball instead of thinking about it."
Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple
Liberty’s Asim Pleas Jr. drives to the basket past Struthers’ Austin Yemma during first-half action on Tuesday night. During the third quarter, Pleas scored his 1,000th career point.
That seemed to work, as Pleas scored 14 points in the third and finished with a game-high 24 to reach the 1,000-point plateau en route to leading Liberty to a 66-63 win over the Wildcats. Pleas recorded the momentous basket at the 2:38 mark, grabbing an offensive rebound in the middle of the paint off a JaShaun Whitman miss and banking in the putback.
"I really wanted Asim to get it because No. 1, he's a great kid," said Liberty coach Dan Bubon, who hadn't coached a 1,000-point scorer before. "He's a great kid, he's a great student - he's everything you want in a high school athlete. Always at practice, stays after, works at his game - you can't ask anything more out of him. I think everybody was really happy he got it."
While everyone waited for Pleas to take over the game, it was a Struthers (5-12) player who looked similar to what Bubon and the Leopards (11-8) are used to seeing from their star. Ray'Quan Phifer shot lights out in the first half, going 7 of 8 from the field and amassing 13 points in the first quarter alone. The 6-foot-2 junior connected on mid-range jumpers, 3-pointers and drove the lane to terrorize the Liberty defense.
Phifer got into foul trouble early in the third quarter, picking up his fourth foul at the 5:58 mark, and he had to sit out 8 minutes. Phifer finished with 18 points.
"We've got to realize as a team that we've got to play smarter and not put ourselves in those positions and get those cheap fouls," Struthers coach Joe Savko said.
The Wildcats also had a triple-double from senior Tameko Holness, who kept Liberty from pulling away in the second half by proving to be a menace on the low-post defense. Holness scored 10 points, grabbed 14 rebounds and blocked 13 shots.
"Tameko did a great job tonight," Savko said. "Asim, we were trying to force him in to Tameko because we weren't going to block his shot with other guys guarding him - we wanted to force him into Tameko and get some blocks. It worked for the most part, but they had so much penetration and we just couldn't recover on all of it."
After taking a 63-50 lead with 5:30 remaining in the fourth quarter, the Leopards almost squandered that lead, as the Wildcats went on a 13-3 run over the final five-and-a-half minutes. Liberty committed six turnovers over that span but managed to hold off the furious comeback.
Bubon said despite the collapse, the win will boost morale, as the Leopards had lost their previous two games.
"This was our first test in a while holding the lead, and honestly, we didn't do that bad," Bubon said. "We had chances to get layups and we ran into each other, we dropped the ball, we missed free throws. We'll get better at it. We needed a win."
As for Pleas, he'll cherish the fact he became a part of an inclusive club at Liberty High School.
"This means a lot because not too many people have been able to accomplish this," Pleas said. "We've had a lot of good basketball players come through Liberty and to be mentioned with some of the tops like Bradley Fletcher is just an honor."