By Brian Hagberg
50th Space Wing Public Affairs
The 4th Space Operations Squadron had a year to think about what happened in the 2016 intramural basketball championship game, when the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center’s defensive strategy held the potent 4 SOPS offense to just 37 points.
This year, it was the 4 SOPS defense shutting down the USAFWC as a mid-half switch to full-court pressure held the USAFWC scoreless for nearly 10 minutes, leading 4 SOPS to a 58-38 victory and the 2017 intramural basketball championship.
“They’ve got some great players,” said Robert Shaw, 4 SOPS coach. “They were short-manned and we wanted to run them down and tire them out.”
According to Mark Engesser, USAFWC, the strategy worked.
“They wore us down and we ran out of gas,” he said. “They’re a good team with good depth and a good bench.”
Engesser joked the USAFWC team had another reason for being worn down by the constant pressure.
“We’re too old,” he laughed. “That’s my excuse.”
Age aside, the USAFWC kept the game close through the first half, going up 10-7 early. 4 SOPS came back to take a 17-13 lead with just over seven minutes to go. AJ Cotton hit a 3-pointer to give USAFWC a brief 19-18 lead.
Shawn Graves emphatically closed out the first half as he took a blocked shot all the way for a dunk, giving 4 SOPS a 26-25 lead at halftime.
4 SOPS opened the second half with a 9-2 run as Henriksen Liberis found a soft spot in the defense from mid-range.
“In the second half, Liberis started making everything,” Shaw said. “I told him to take a couple steps in from the 3-point line and it made all the difference.”
Liberis scored all 11 of his points in the second half, most from just beyond the free throw line.
“As soon as I hit that first one, everything else felt good coming off my hands,” he said.
Cotton connected on a 3-pointer to stop the run, making it 35-30 with 16 minutes left to play.
“They started hitting shots in the second half,” Engesser said. “They found holes in our defense and kept hitting that mid-range jumper.”
The teams would trade buckets before Cotton was slightly shaken up on a screen play, forcing USAFWC to take a timeout trailing 40-33 with 13 minutes to go.
Two minutes later, Engesser would hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to six, 42-36, with 11 minutes to play. It would be the final points USAFWC would score for nearly 10 minutes.
Franklin Eason, 4 SOPS’s on-court leader for the last two seasons, kept his team calm while they ran out the clock.
“It feels great, I’m all smiles right now,” he said. “They are a great, smart team, but it feels good for this (game) to turn out in our favor.”
Engesser led USAFWC with 13 points. Cotton had 12 points, all from 3-pointers, and Thomas King added 10.
Graves led all scorers with 14 points, with Eason contributing 13; Tony Strickland had 12 and Liberis 11.