Liberty County boys basketball coach Julian Stokes will tell you that timing is everything when you're trying to make a run at a state championship.
And he says his Panthers, who defeated Jonesboro 58-52 last year in the Class AAA championship game, are peaking at just the right time.
For practical purposes, fourth-ranked Liberty begins its state title defense on Thursday , when it opens play in the semifinals of the Region 2 tournament against the Appling County-Brantley County winner. By virtue of earning the No. 1 seed and a bye, Liberty has clinched, at worst, a No. 4 seed in the state tournament.
Stokes said his Panthers seem to realize that the competition is about to get serious. And they are playing like it.
"I think for the last nine games, we have been playing great," Stokes said. "I think we are finally starting to shift our mentality and take it seriously. Not that we haven't taken it seriously all year, but to the point that we have a goal, a mission, and we have to do anything that we have to do to get it accomplished."
Liberty started the season slow, losing four of its first seven games, after Davion Mitchell (Auburn signee) was sidelined with a foot injury and Richard LeCounte left early to enroll at UGA on a football scholarship. Mitchell has returned to form, and junior guard Will Richardson is playing like a budding star, averaging over 32 points per game.
The Panthers have not lost since a 76-65 loss to Charlotte Christian on Dec. 22 in the Chick-fil-a Classic in Columbia, S.C.
Stokes said the loss of LeCounte, an intergral part of the 2015-16 championship team, left a void that is hard to fill. But it's not impossible.
"Difference between this year and last year, obviously is the big loss of Richard," said Stokes. "With him bringing so many dynamics to the team offensively, defensively, vocally. He was a leader. His floor play, all of that is missing. But we are recovering, as a team, from that."
"We have learned to play together more. We have learned to strap down a little more on our defense, and those are things I think will help us down the stretch. If we continue to do that, we will be fine."
But first comes the region tournament. Liberty (17-5, 9-1) and Long County should meet in the region title game, but Stokes said anything can happen at this point in the season.
"Right now, the favorite matchup is us and No. 2 seed Long County," Stokes said. "But you never know what can happen. So we are just going to take care of whoever we have on Thursday and let everything else fall where it falls."
Several boys teams began region tournament play on Monday . Here are some highlights:
-- Region 5: There were no surprises in the three region games played as No. 1 seeded Cedar Grove handled No. 8 McNair 79-44. No. 3-seeded Lovett took care of No. 6 seed Towers 80-68. Westminster, the No. 4 seed, squeaked by No. 5 seed Stone Mountain 44-41. No. 2 Pace Academy beat No. 7 seed Redan 69-46.
In girls games:
-- Region 4: No. 4 Kendrick beat No. 5 Pike County 70-33 and will face No. 1 seed Peach County on Thursday at Central-Macon. No. 3 seed Westside-Macon moved past No. 6 seed Rutland 57-49 and will face winner of No. 2 seed Central-Macon vs. No. 7 seed Jackson on Thursday .
-- Region 6: All of the top seeds moved to the next round. No. 2 (North) North Murray defeated No. 5 (South) Adairsville, 46-30 and will face Sonoraville on Wednesday . No. 3 (South) Sonoraville handled No. 4 (North) Murray County 44-41. No. 2 (South) Haralson County moved past No. 5 (North) Coahulla Creek 56-38 and will face Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe on Wednesday . No. 3 (North) Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe defeated No. 4 (South) Bremen 62-47.