Liberty wins the Big South Championship


No. 1 seed Liberty utilized rebounding and a stifling defense to overcome an early deficit and top No. 3 seed and two-time defending champion UNC Asheville, 60-42, in the 2018 Big South Women’s Basketball Championship title game at the Vines Center, Sunday afternoon.

Liberty (24-9) dominated the rebounding (44-30), points in the paint (28-12) and second-chance points (19-9) categories, led by tournament MVP KK Barbour (10 points, six rebounds), who scored in double figures for the third straight game this weekend.

The Lady Flames’ 17th Big South Championship title in 22 years but their first since 2015 also saw the home team limit Asheville (17-15) to 29.8 percent (14-of-47) shooting, as Liberty held its 17th straight opponent below the 60-point mark.

Point guards Ashtyn Baker (all 12 of her points came after halftime) and Nene Johnson (10 points, career-high eight rebounds, game-high three assists) also stepped up, with freshman Baker joining Barbour on the all-tournament team. The all-tournament squad was rounded out by Asheville’s senior duo of Khaila Webb (game-high 13 points) and Bronaza Fitzgerald (four points, six rebounds), along with High Point’s Emma Bockrath.

The Lady Flames posted their eighth consecutive victory overall and closed out their first unbeaten home season since 2007-08 with a 15-0 record at the Vines Center. Liberty got to cut down the nets on its home court for the first time since 2006 and the seventh time in program history.

The Lady Flames will learn their destination and first-round opponent for their 17th NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Championship Sunday at 7 p.m. on ESPN. Liberty’s first-round game will be played on either Friday or Saturday.

Asheville opened the game with a 10-2 lead, taking advantage of four turnovers and 1-of-6 shooting by the Lady Flames in the early going. Liberty then held the Bulldogs scoreless for the period’s final 5:47, posting a 7-0 run during that time. Lela Sellersscored the quarter’s last five points, cutting Liberty’s deficit to 10-9 after the first 10 minutes.

Asheville pushed its advantage back to five (14-9) on jumpers by Jessica Wall and Webb to begin the second quarter. Liberty was able to take its first lead of the day (17-16) on an Ola Makurat layup, 6:12 before halftime. The lead changed hands four more times, including on Molly Reagan‘s third career triple with 11 seconds to play. Liberty’s fourth three-pointer of the half provided the Lady Flames a 23-21 halftime edge, and the Lady Flames would never trail again.

Tatyana Crowder led all players with seven first-half points, as Liberty’s award-winning duo of Keyen Green and Baker combined for zero points in 10 minutes due to foul trouble. The Lady Flames found their greatest first-half success in the rebounding (23-13) and second-chance points (13-3) categories, paced by seven boards by Bridgette Rettstatt and six more from Johnson.

After Webb opened the second-half scoring with a bank shot, Liberty held the Bulldogs without a made field goal for the next 5:06. The Lady Flames’ tight defense helped them build an eight-point lead (35-27) when Barbour swished a three-pointer right in front of her team’s bench at the 3:29 mark of the third quarter.

Liberty stayed on top for the remainder of the stanza, taking a 39-34 cushion to the fourth quarter on the heels of Baker’s layup at the buzzer. The freshman point guard scored six points for the Lady Flames during the third 10-minute session.

Baker kept it going in the fourth quarter, tallying six of the Lady Flames’ first nine points, including a pair of free throws at 4:51 which made it 48-36, Liberty. The Lady Flames’ lead remained in double figures the rest of the way, as they held Asheville to one made field goal during the period’s first 8:41 and connected on 8-of-10 fourth-quarter free throws.

The Lady Flames’ 18-point margin of victory was the largest by any team in the Big South Championship title game since Liberty’s 88-41 triumph over Asheville in 2005 at the Vines Center. Liberty won its three tournament games by an average of 23.0 ppg this weekend.

Liberty took good care of the basketball (season-low nine turnovers), shot 41.2 percent (7-of-17) from three-point range and hit 83.3 percent (10-of-12) of its second-half free throw attempts.

Barbour, the only current Lady Flame who appeared in Liberty’s 64-62 double overtime loss during the 2016 title game at Asheville, scored in double digits for the seventh straight outing while hitting three of her five attempts from three-point range. The junior averaged 14.3 ppg and 6.3 rpg for the tournament.

Big South Freshman of the Year Baker and Johnson combined for 21 second-half points, matching Asheville’s total output during the final 20 minutes.

Rettstatt matched her career high of eight rebounds in 12 minutes off the bench, while Sellers collected six boards. Sellers was one of three Lady Flames to finish with seven points, joining Crowder and Green.

Senior Sheana Vega is the lone holdover from Liberty’s 2015 Big South Championship squad, so all of her teammates will be making their NCAA Tournament debuts later this week.

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