Liberty takes Big South women’s title

CONWAY, S.C. (AP)—The top-seeded Liberty women’s basketball team got a big boost before the Big South championship game from an unlikely source—Liberty’s men’s team.

About three hours before the Lady Flames hit the floor at the HTC Center to play seventh-seeded Longwood, they learned that the men completed a four-game run through their tournament to win a Big South title despite coming into the week with 20 losses. Liberty’s women weren’t about to disappoint a campus suddenly primed for a double-dose of March Madness and followed up with a 54-45 victory Sunday night, their fifth straight tournament title.

“Seeing that the men had defied all odds, it gave me a lot of extra energy,” Liberty’s Brittany Campbell said. “All of us were, `Let’s do this. Let’s have a double championship.”’

It happened before, the last time the men made the NCAA in 2004. Now, both squads will wait out NCAA selections with something to cheer about.

“It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Devon Brown, the women’s tournament MVP.

Tolu Omotola scored 16 points for Liberty (27-6), which will carry a 14-game win streak into its NCAA tournament site. It’s the Lady Flames’ 15th NCAA trip in the past 17 years.

The Liberty men won four games in six days, capped by an 87-76 upset over Charleston Southern. They watched the women from behind the basket, then joined the celebration after the school’s second title. All the players, men and women, posed for photos on the court before the Lady Flames cut down their nets.

Omotola had nine points to spark a 17-8 run to start the second half as the Lady Flames took control. Longwood (14-19) had cut a 15-point lead to 53-45 in the final seconds, but got no closer.

Ashley Rininger had 10 points, while Brown grabbed 13 rebounds for Liberty.

Coward had 14 points to lead Longwood, which struggled with its shooting throughout. The Lancers’ high-scoring guards Daeisha Brown and Crystal Smith, who came in averaging better than 27 points a game combined, finished with just six points on 2-of-23 shooting.

Not everything went perfectly for Liberty. The Lady Flames were held 18 points under their season’s average and had 24 turnovers after averaging less than 19 on the season. “I don’t think we lost our composure,” Liberty coach Carey Green said. “We didn’t play well at times.”

Longwood made it to its first Big South final by beating Charleston Southern and then second-seeded Winthrop in the quarterfinals. The Lancers pulled another upset when they defeated Radford in the semis.

Things looked bad coming in for seventh-seeded Longwood, playing its first season in the conference. Liberty is the unquestioned power in Big South women’s basketball. The Lady Flames reached 20 victories for a sixth consecutive season and got their 15th 20-win campaign in the last 17 years. Liberty hadn’t lost in Conway since 1996.

The Lady Flames were particularly hard on Longwood this year, winning the two regular-season matchups by 33 and 41 points.

Still, the Lancers made it difficult for the taller, stronger Lady Flames to gain traction.

Erin Neal had five points and Coward four as Longwood moved in front 12-8, helped by six Liberty turnovers in the first five minutes. The Lady Flames dug in on defense after that with a 17-4 run as the Lancers went more than 10 minutes with just one field goal.

But when it looked like Liberty would take control, the team couldn’t find the basket as it missed seven of its final nine shots of the half and led only 29-23 at the break.

The Lancers, though, weren’t able to pull off the stunner like Liberty’s men. Picked for 11th in the 12-team league before the season, they felt as though they opened plenty of eyes with their showing this week.

“We know we were better than a lot of teams in this league,” Longwood senior Erin Neal said. “This is close, but we need to finish.”

Longwood stuck around despite getting outrebounded 33-15 in the first 20 minutes.

Green, who has led the school to 12 NCAA tournaments since arriving in 2000, was absent from his team’s quarterfinal win Friday due to the death of his father, A.J. Green returned to the team for Saturday’s victory. He was glad for the release of competition in a week he described as an “emotional roller-coaster.”

“I’ve got a lot of people praying for me,” Green said. “And the prayers are working.”