Liberty 68, Gardner-Webb 66

Liberty looked poised to end its string of close calls in the

Big South championship game when it was up by 20 points with less

than 10 minutes left.

Little did anyone know the Flames would need a redshirt freshman

to hit the first game-winning shot of her career to continue their

league dominance.

Devon Brown stopped Liberty’s second-half meltdown with a

banked-in runner with 4 seconds left to snap a tie, and the Flames

beat Gardner-Webb 68-66 on Sunday for its 13th Big South title in

14 years.

The second-seeded Flames’ 10th straight victory wasn’t secured

until Monique Hudson missed a runner at the buzzer for the

top-seeded Lady Bulldogs (28-4), who saw their 16-game winning

streak snapped and their hopes for a first NCAA tournament berth

squashed despite a remarkable comeback.

And it was eerily similar finish to last year, when Hudson’s

sister Dominique missed a shot at the buzzer in Gardner-Webb’s

51-50 loss to Liberty in the title game. The year before, Liberty

got a hoop in the closing seconds for a 66-65 win over Radford.

Liberty’s 2006 title was a 53-50 victory over High Point.

“It’s what the championship games usually turn out to be, very

close,” said Liberty coach Carey Green, who improved to 30-1 in

the Big South tournament. “That’s been the history the last

several years, it’s been a two-point, a one-point. There’s not been

too many blowouts in the last six or seven years.”

Tournament MVP Brown had 24 points and eight rebounds for the

Flames, who gave up an 18-0 run after leading 58-38.

“I knew were going to win the whole time,” insisted guard

Amber Mays, who fouled out late with eight points and eight of

Liberty’s 26 turnovers.

Dominique Hudson scored 17 points and Margaret Roundtree and

Monique Hudson added 13 apiece for Gardner-Webb in a bitter finish

for coach Rick Reeves, who guided Liberty to its first three Big

South crowns from 1997-99.

“I really wanted this for the Gardner-Webb community,” Reeves

said. “I wanted this championship as much as any championship I’ve

ever won and been a part of.”

Brown prevented that with two key buckets in the closing

seconds.

She stepped between two defenders, lunged forward and banked in

a shot as she was falling down in the lane to put Liberty ahead

66-64 with 32 seconds left. But Courtney Epps’ driving layup with

12.7 seconds left tied it.

After a timeout, Brown drove down the right side of the floor

and her leaner kissed in off the glass.

“Not at all,” Brown said when asked if she had game-winning

shot experience from high school in Waynesboro, Va. “This is the

first.”

Gardner-Webb was out of timeouts and Monique Hudson dribbled the

length of the floor. Her shot from the right of the lane went off

the glass and rim before falling out, and Liberty’s players mobbed

Brown.

“The play was to give her the ball,” Green said. “They

changed up defenses and she did exactly where we wanted her to go

with it. She made a big shot.”

Early on, it didn’t look like there would be any suspense – or

any chance for Reeves to beat his former team.

Reeves left the Lynchburg, Va., school for Southern Mississippi

in 1999. He resigned with a losing record after five seasons and

moved to Gardner-Webb, inheriting a 5-22 team in 2004.

The Boiling Springs, N.C., school left the Atlantic Sun for the

Big South last year, and made a surprising run to the 2009

final.

The Lady Bulldogs seemed poised to unseat Liberty this year.

They pulled out two close victories over the Flames during the

regular season and tied a conference record for wins.

But Gardner-Webb was quickly overwhelmed.

Roundtree, the league’s player of the year, was bottled up by

Liberty’s defense when she wasn’t missing layups in a miserable

3-for-13 first-half performance. Dominique Hudson, a fellow

all-conference pick, had three fouls before the game was 12 minutes

old. Epps picked up a technical foul and fellow starter LaTroya

Pope had to leave briefly after taking a hard fall.

Liberty shot 65 percent in the first half before Gardner-Webb

started getting hot.

Dominique Hudson’s twisting layup and free throw with 2:32 left

gave Gardner-Webb its first lead of the game. But the Flames still

improved to 13-0 in Big South title games.

“We’re very blessed,” Green said. “We’re fortunate.”