By KEVIN THOMPSON
HOLCOMB — It was quite a test for a fairly young Holcomb team to open the season.
But after a shaky start, the Longhorns proved up to the test as they defeated Liberal 55-43 at the HHS gym.
Heath Tucker scored 17 points, which was to be expected, but it was the play of Trey Sleep that should open the eyes of the area.
The junior led all scorers in his first varsity start with 20 points and nine rebounds.
"Our kids stepped up to the challenge," coach Chad Novack said.
Step up they did with a young lineup, starting one senior and four juniors.
Down 10-3 with 3:34 to go in the first quarter, Holcomb went on a 15-0 run to take an 18-10 lead early in the second.
Liberal tied the game at 20 midway into the period, but three's by Dalton Gottschalk and Tucker and a field goal by sleep opened things up as the Longhorns took a 32-27 lead into the break.
Sleep scored a standard 3-point play and a layup at 2:51 before Blake Stout scored a pair of goals, the last at 2:01.
That time was significant as the Longhorn defense held Liberal without a field goal for the next 7 minutes and 30 seconds, and by then it was all but over.
"Early on we were pressing too hard, trying to force the issue instead of letting the offense take care of itself," coach Chad Novack said. "Our intensity was there, our kids were playing hard; they just needed to take a deep breath and relax."
That deep breath came in the form of the 15-0 run when they settled down, played hard and acted right, he said.
"If you do those three things, things are going to pan out for you most of the time," Novack said. "I was really impressed with the way our kids played."
Balanced scoring from all areas of the court also made a difference, as Holcomb scored from around the basket, outside the arc, and everywhere in between.
"That's what makes this team so enjoyable," he said. "They don't care who scores. They're happy to find the open guy and make the assist."
Holcomb shot just 39 percent from the floor (16-of-41) and just 3-of-10 from 3-point land, and Novack knows his team can do better.
"We're better shooters than that," he said. "That had to do with nerves and first-game jitters, but we definitely got a lot of good looks tonight."
About the only weak spot on the night was the third quarter where Holcomb only scored nine points, missed nine shots and committed four turnovers.
But it was also the time frame in which the Longhorn defense stopped Liberal on 13 straight possessions from hitting a field goal.
They also handled the press well in the second half and out-rebounded Liberal for the game 33-20, which went a long way to getting the win, Novack added.
Next up is a 3-day challenge in the Clarion Inn Southwest Kansas Classic next week against three quality opponents. Denver South comes in Thursday, a team that looks a lot like Liberal but is more athletic.
Liberal 10 17 7 9 -- 43
Holcomb 16 16 9 16 -- 55
Liberal (43) — Wiltshire 1 0-0 2, Quintana 0 3-5 3, Abbott 3 3-8 9, Stout 3 0-0 7, Hasik 2 1-2 5, Ware 2 2-2 7, Green 2 3-4 8, Coker 1 0-0 2. Totals 14 12-21 43.
Holcomb (55) — Gottschalk 3 0-0 7, Tucker 5 5-6 17, Sleep 6 8-11 20, Rupp 0 3-4 3, Jarnagin 0 2-2 2, Richmeier 1 1-3 4, Van Cleave 1 1-2 3. Totals 16-41 21-30 55.
3-point field goals--Liberal: 3 (Stout, Ware, Coker); Holcomb: 3 (Tucker 2, Gottschalk 1). Rebounds--Liberal: 19 (Green 4); Holcomb: 29 (Sleep 9, Tucker 9). Turnovers--Liberal: 17; Holcomb: 17. Fouls--Liberal: 20; Holcomb: 18. Fouled out: Liberal (Quintana).