Buchanan’s season ends at the hands of Liberty in last-second thriller

Buchanan junior Kendall Milton, who finished with 20 carries for 194 yards, scored on an 80-yard touchdown run to give the Bears a 6-0 lead in the first quarter. The Bears, however, lost to Liberty 23-21 on a last-second field goal to finish 10-3 on the season. COURTESY OF AN EYE FOR IT ALL PHOTOGRAPHY

One play.

That’s what the Division I semifinal game between Buchanan and Liberty came down to Friday night with three seconds on the clock as the fate of both teams lied on a sophomore kicker 26 yards away from a neon-yellow goal post.

And fate would not smile on the Bears this night as Liberty’s Brayden Blevins’ kick was straight through the uprights as time expired, sending No. 2 seed Buchanan reeling, hands on helmets in disbelief and defeat in a 24-23 thriller at Veterans Memorial Stadium.

“Hats off to Liberty. They just made one more play than us,” Buchanan head coach Matt Giordano said. “That’s a great program, great team and coaching staff.”

Buchanan seemingly had the see-saw game in control after Race Mahlum’s 37-yard field goal with 1:44 left in the game gave the Bears a 23-21 lead.

But after starting on its own 28-yard line, Liberty methodically marched down the field with quarterback Hector Gonzalez and star running back Sam Stewart Jr., leading to the game-winning field goal and advancing the No. 3 Patriots to the title game at Central a day after Thanksgiving.

“Liberty did a good job being patient and moving the ball,” Giordano added. “There was confusion, but the truth is we just needed one more play more than Liberty and it would be a happier story.”

Buchanan (10-3) handed Liberty (12-1) its only loss in Week 4, a 28-13 victory on the road. The Patriots received a forfeit win, a 34-10 scoreboard loss, in their opener after Mission Viejo was found to play with an ineligible player.

A normally physical Buchanan defense struggled to contain Stewart, a tough-to-bring-down 5-foot-11, 225-pound senior, as he bowled his way to 233 yards on the ground on 37 carries, adding six catches for 49 yards.

“Sam’s been our workhorse all year long, he’s an unbelievable football player,” Liberty coach Bryan Nixon said. “I’m so proud of that young man. He wants the ball in his hands all the time and why not give it to him?”

After a scoreless first quarter, Buchanan got on the board with an 80-yard electrifying run by junior Kendall Milton, who finished with 20 carries for 194 yards. However, a 2-point try failed, a play that would later haunt the Bears in a game that saw Liberty run 70 plays to Buchanan’s 38.

Liberty took the lead after Stewart scored the first of his two touchdowns, a 5-yard plunge midway through the quarter followed by an Anthony Villanueva 13-yard rush with 1:18 left in the half.

Buchanan would emphatically answer as Jalen Cropper took the ensuing kickoff 90 yards, starting left then finishing down the right sideline to cut the lead to 14-13 just before the half.

The Bears scored early in the third quarter for a 20-14 lead on a 20-yard touchdown pass from sophomore DJ Stevenson to senior Brandon Hernandez, but was answered by Stewart’s 4-yard run with 4:07 left in the third.

Buchanan was seeking its first Valley title since 2000, when Giordano starred before an eight-year NFL career as a safety.

“There’s a word that tossed around a lot that gets taken for granted and that word is ‘family,’” Giordano said. “We try to really on focus on that with our program. When we tell these kids we love them, we mean it, but this is going to sting.”