View Park ends Valley Torah’s state championship run

Nathaniel Liberman played through muscle cramps in both legs on Thursday night, but he couldn’t overcome them. And neither could Valley Torah overcome a fourth-quarter comeback by View Park, falling 69-68, as the Knights slayed the Wolfpack’s hopes of a California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) Division 5 state championship in the quarterfinal round on March 10.

Valley Torah won the Southern Section Division 6AA championship on March 5, making it the first Jewish school to win the CIF title. The Wolfpack went on to a 58-50 win over Calvin Christian of Escondido in the first round of the statewide CIF Division 5 basketball tournament at Los Angeles Valley College on March 8.

On Thursday, 6-foot-4 sophomore guard Nathaniel Liberman, usually in the 6-foot-9 shadow of older brother Aaron, emerged as the future of this Valley Torah team, scoring 18 points—all but two in the first half.

“Thank God my shot was falling and it put us up,” said Nathaniel Liberman, whose first four shots fell from three-point range. He fell to the court clutching his left leg with just over a minute left in the third quarter, and valiantly returned halfway through the fourth quarter after receiving treatment on the sideline. He was back only a minute before his right leg gave out.

“I tried to maybe get another shot in, keep us up, but my legs couldn’t take it,” he said.

Natanel Tzion led the Wolfpack with 20 points, Aaron Liberman contributed 16 points while constantly double-teamed under the basket and Yosef Grundman added 13.

“I let my team down the last two games, so I wanted to come out here and show the fans, my team, my coaches, that I am who I am, that I can lead, that I can score,” said Tzion, who had been held to a combined six points in Valley Torah’s previous two games.

Junior guard Sheldon Wright scored a game-high 31 points for View Park, 25 of which came in the second half.

“The kids [from Valley Torah] are tremendous. They played up today,” said Don Turner, the Knights’ first-year coach. “We just got a little more lucky at the end. That was really the only difference.”

With 1:36 on the clock, Grundman slapped his hands against the floor, symbolic of locking down on defense. Valley Torah then proceeded to give up consecutive perimeter shots by the Knights’ Wright, who single-handedly sparked View Park’s return from 14 points behind.

“We were one or two plays away from the win,” Valley Torah coach Robert Icart said. “We just got caught up in this emotional ride.”

After Aaron Liberman picked up a controversial fourth foul with 4.6 seconds left, Wright made both free throws to go ahead by one. Grundman took the ensuing inbounds pass, driving down the court while heavily guarded and putting up a desperation shot. The senior center was there for the potential winning tip, but mistimed the jump.

But critical turnovers and missed free throws were the real difference.

Aaron Liberman missed all four first-half free throws, though he hit five of six in the second half. Grundman missed a free throw on the Wolfpack’s second-last possession after completing a three-point play on the previous possession.

“We had high expectations. We played our hearts out, and we came up short, but we’ll hold our heads up high,” Tzion said. “We made history.”

Valley Torah finishes its historic season with 25 wins against 5 losses; though its season isn’t over quite yet.

In two weeks the Wolfpack will travel to New York to compete in the 20th annual Red Sarachek Tournament at the Yeshiva University against other elite Jewish schools from across the country.

“We’re going to regroup,” Icart said. “The YU championship was in the plan, in God’s plan and in our plan.

“We built something bigger than basketball. We built a sense of pride. We’ve accomplished a lot and we still have something more to accomplish.”

And Nathaniel Liberman is looking forward to building on this season next year.

“I’m going to take this loss, focus my anger and sadness, and hopefully I can take next year’s team farther,” he said.

Valley Torah wins first round in Division 5

Yosef Grundman got his groove back just in time for Valley Torah’s historic postseason run, leading the Wolfpack to a 58-50 win over Calvin Christian of Escondido in the first round of the California Interscholastic Federation Division 5 basketball tournament at Los Angeles Valley College on March 8.

“I was going through a slump during the season mentally, but I overcame it,” said Grundman, whose 19 points were more than double his season average.

After the Crusaders clawed away at the Wolfpack’s 10-point lead, converting three consecutive Valley Torah turnovers to get within three points halfway through the fourth quarter, Grundman took control.

He hit key free throws, only to see Calvin Christian’s Daniel Stout shed Valley Torah standout Aaron Liberman for a dunk that could have turned the momentum in the Crusaders’ favor. Grundman then drove the lane for back-to-back layups, including an impressive spinning reverse, to put Valley Torah (24-4) back up by nine at 52-43.

Liberman got redemption at the rim, slamming home an under-the-basket assist from his brother Nathaniel.

Calvin Christian resorted to fouling in the final minute, trying to make up its single-digit deficit, but Grundman sunk two free throws [A2]to end the scoring. He went 6-for-6 from the free-throw line.

“We knew that he was capable of playing at this level, but it just took some time,” Valley Torah coach Robert Icart said. “He’s becoming more consistent and he’s really grown up on the court.”

Aaron Liberman, fighting flu-like symptoms, finished with 15 points, and Nathaniel Liberman had 12 points and an impressive block of a Crusader desperation shot to end the third quarter.

Stout led all scorers with 23 points and Brock Lusky had 17 points to keep the Crusaders close. In fact the Wolfpack trailed by five points midway through the second quarter, and were down 25-24 at the half.

“I think sometimes we take it too easy on teams. Eventually we’re going to get to a team that we’re going to have to play hard all game, and if we don’t play our all, we’re going to lose,” Aaron Liberman said. “We have to realize that sooner rather than later.”

Natanel Tzion, whose intensity was evident throughout, fouled out with two minutes left trying to make a steal.

“We talk about discipline but we still picked up a lot of fouls,” Icart said. “We’re going pick up some because we’re going play aggressive. We’re not going to sit back, we’re going to go out and guard.”

Icart has arranged for a Holocaust survivor to speak to the team about perseverance before Thursday’s second-round game against 17-16 View Park Prep.

“We’re trying to broaden our horizons to try to get to a state championship,” Aaron Liberman said. “We’re going to do our best and see how far we can go. We just got to get in the right mindset.”

Aaron Liberman: Finding balance between faith, basketball [VIDEO]

“There is God in everything. Even basketball.”

When Aaron Liberman said that, endless legs splayed out in front of him on a Sunday morning in late December, he didn’t know how true his words would be.

Just days later, the Valley Torah senior center was sent sprawling four times in a basketball game against league opponent New Community Jewish High School on Jan. 8. He sustained a punctured lung.

There was God in his rapid recovery.

Three weeks later, Liberman, a lanky 6-foot-9, returned to lead the Wolfpack, reeling from consecutive losses, to recapture the Westside League title and clinch the top seed in the California Interscholastic Federation Division 6AA basketball championship tournament.

Now Liberman and 22-4 Valley Torah, the No. 2 team in the national Jewish basketball team rankings, are playing for the title.

Averaging 18 points, 11.3 rebounds and 8.8 blocks per game — and a 3.4 grade point average across his Judaic and secular studies — Liberman has earned interest from Ivy League and basketball schools alike, including Yale and Dartmouth, Boston College and Pepperdine.

Story continues after the video.

However, many collegiate basketball games would conflict with Liberman’s Shabbat observance.

“My religion is important to me, and so is basketball,” he said.

“He’ll have a decision to make,” said Lenard Liberman, Aaron’s father. “A lot happens between now and when he’ll start college. I think it’s about getting into the right program with the right coach.”

Lenard Liberman, a Stanford alumnus, would like his son to consider the Cardinal.

“They said, ‘Gain 50 pounds and we’ll talk to you,’ ” Lenard Liberman said of his own attempt to walk on to Stanford’s basketball team some two decades ago. “So Aaron’s living my dream in a lot of ways. He’s much better than I was as a basketball player, and he’s a great student. He can do great things with that.”