CONWAY, S.C. (AP) Liberty coach Carey Green’s yearlong ordeal ended with the only outcome people expect from the Lady Flames – another Big South Conference title and NCAA trip.
Ashley Rininger scored 12 of her 16 points in the second half to lead Liberty to its 16th Big South crown in 19 years in a 73-64 victory over High Point on Sunday.
Green took over a successful program with the Lady Flames in 2000 and has kept it moving forward in high style, winning 13 league tournament titles and seemingly always ending in the NCAA Tournament.
A year ago, though, Liberty stumbled in the Big South semis and missed out on the sport’s premiere event for just the third time in his tenure.
”It was miserable,” Green said of the past 12 months. ”If you’re expected to do something and you’re capable of doing something and you underachieve, it’s a full, bad year. You have to redeem yourself.”
And the Lady Flames (26-6) did just that as they rallied from nine-points down in the first half. They were still down 39-37 after Latrice Phelps’ basket early in the second half. That’s when they took off on a 15-3 run to take control for their 14th straight victory.
Rininger, named the tournament’s MVP, had three baskets in the surge and Emily Frazier closed things with a 3-pointer to give Liberty a 52-42 lead.
”I wasn’t trying to make plays, I was trying to play solid ball,” Rininger said. ”I was trying to do everything I could to help my team and I’m thankful we were able to use that momentum.
Stacia Robertson, the Big South Conference’s player of the year, had 24 points and nine rebounds for the Panthers.
The 6-foot-4 Rininger added 10 rebounds. Karly Buer had 15 points and Frazier 13 for the Lady Flames. Jasmine Garnder had nine points and a game-high 11 rebounds.
Phelps finished with 17 points. While Robertson and Phelps combined to shoot 13 of 25 from the floor, the rest of the Panthers were just 6 of 26.
If ever a team wanted to end a frustrating streak, it’s High Point, which had constantly had its postseason runs ended by the Big South Conference’s brick wall in Liberty.
The Panthers had lost all eight previous tournament meetings with the Lady Flames, three coming in championship games. And High Point came out like a team on a quest, building a 33-24 lead with 5 minutes left in the half behind Robertson’s 13 points.
Frazier had two foul shots and a three-point play while teammate Buer followed with three-point player of her own.
High Point: The Panthers came in leading the Big South in scoring at 69.7 points a game and fell short of that mark against. … High Point is winless all-time against the Lady Flames when playing in the Big South Conference tournament. The Panthers fell to 0-9 with Sunday’s loss. … High Point posted its first-ever back-to-back 20-win seasons with Saturday’s semifinal win over Gardner-Webb.
Liberty: The Lady Flames are 2-15 all-time in NCAA tournament play. Both wins came in 2005, led by former WNBA player in 6-foot-7 Katie Feenstra. Liberty defeated Penn State and DePaul before falling in the NCAA’s Sweet 16 to LSU. … Liberty posted a Big South Conference record 19 wins in capturing the regular-season title. … Liberty has held 61 straight opponents to under 50 percent shooting. High Point shot just 37.5 percent.
Lady Flames coach Carey Green said he’s amazed when he thinks about his team’s sustained success in the one-bid Big South. He recalled his days as a Clemson assistant when the team could finish fourth and fifth in the Atlantic Coast Conference and still make the NCAAs. That’s not the case for Liberty where he says the postseason tournament is ”ten times the pressure.”
High Point coach DeUnna Hendrix said her players took another step forward this season despite falling in the same spot as a year ago. The Panthers lost the Big South title game to Winthrop in 2014 in what they considered a breakthrough season. This time, Hendrix thought the players had to fight though more ups and downs to arrive back in line for title. "We’re a program that’s trying to rise,” she said. ”The mark is set. We just have to continue trying to get there.”