Matt Muntean stood at the foul line for the Olentangy Liberty High School boys basketball team Feb. 27.

Matt Muntean stood at the foul line for the Olentangy Liberty High School boys basketball team Feb. 27.

The starting senior guard calmly dribbled the ball, then sank a free throw with 14 seconds remaining to give the Patriots their margin of victory in a 49-47 win over visiting Dresden Tri-Valley in the second round of the Division I district tournament.

Being on the basketball court has been an escape for Muntean, whose mother, Judy, died just before the season started.

"Basketball really gives me a chance to get away from it all," he said. "When I'm doing that, I'm not thinking about (my mom)."

Judy Muntean, 49, died Nov. 21. She was the secretary at Hyatts Middle School. Her husband of 27 years, Nick Muntean, said his wife "had routine surgery on her left ankle, and later had a blood clot travel to her heart. In 36 hours, she was gone."

Sam Krafty, an assistant coach for the Liberty boys team, has seen firsthand -- at school and at home -- how basketball has helped the Munteans cope with their grief.

"Matthew has been that son that I never had," Krafty said. "I have two daughters, Allison and Samantha, and Matt and his family have lived a couple of doors down from us for 14 years. Whenever I thought I wanted a son, I would go down and shoot some hoops with him or toss a football around. ... After about 30 minutes, I'd be tired out and go home. He really is a great kid with a huge heart.

"Basketball and this team have really helped Matt. On certain days, you can see it in his eyes. You can see that it's hurting him. ... Being with his friends in school, in practice and in games really helps him get through the tough spots."

One of the ways the team has helped the Munteans is by wearing memorial T-shirts during pregame warm-ups. The front has a logo with Judy's name and the back has "Muntean" across the shoulder blades with Matt's No. 2 in the center and "We got your back" below.

"I wasn't supposed to know about (the T-shirts), but one of our assistant coaches -- my neighbor Sam Krafty -- put it together and someone posted it on Instagram and that's where I saw it," Matt Muntean said. "It was kind of a weird feeling to start, but then I realized that it was all for my mom, so that was good."

Liberty head coach Greg Nossaman said it's easy to support the Munteans.

"Matt has a good support group with his sister (21-year-old Nicole Muntean) and his father. They are such good people," Nossaman said. "The (players) have really rallied around him and we've dedicated the team to Judy."

"Most of the seniors have played together since they were 8 and they are as much brothers as they are teammates," Nick Muntean said. "Matt went to practice the night of the funeral. The coaches, the players, the schools and the whole community have been great for us.

"The coaches and players came to the hospital and to the funeral. There were 1,200 people at the funeral and it showed the support and love the community had for (Judy). It really is a caring atmosphere."

The Patriots, seeded third of 42 teams in the district tournament, improved to 22-1 by beating 23rd-seeded Tri-Valley on Feb. 27. It was their 18th consecutive victory.

Matt Muntean got the rebound on the final shot by the Scotties. He started down the court, then threw his arms into the air and raced to celebrate with his teammates, his surrogate family.

Liberty advanced to play 11th-seeded Westland in a district semifinal Wednesday, March 6, at Marysville. With a win, the Patriots would play in a district final against top-seeded Northland or 20th-seeded Walnut Ridge at 6 p.m. Saturday, March 9, at the Fairgrounds Coliseum. The winner of that game advances to the regional tournament and needs two victories to reach a state semifinal.

"I just want them to win and keep this going," Nick Muntean said. "Matt's with his best friends and doing what he loves."