Mar 11, 2008

Flames unable to slay UNC-Ashville's Goliath

by Jen Slothower


Four seasons transpired and a new coach arrived before Liberty finally made it past the first round of the Big South Tournament.  With a whopping 103-88 victory over the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) at the Vines Center on March 4, Coach Ritchie McKay pulled the Flames over the hump and into a second-round matchup with UNC-Asheville.
<p>
Although the box score from Thursday read UNC-Asheville 75, Liberty 57, the statistics hardly told the story for all Liberty Flames fans hoping for an upset in the Big South semifinal.
<p>
The March 6 contest with the Bulldogs held plenty of hype.  The nationally-televised game featured Kenny George, the tallest man in college basketball, who at 7’7” can dunk flat-footed.  Although George rode the pine for a large portion of the season while resting his knees, he still ranked sixth in the nation in blocked shots and came against the Flames ready to play.
<p>
Liberty had beat the Bulldogs earlier in the season in an electric game in the Vines Center, but George saw no playing time in the 83-54 defeat.
<p>
In Lynchburg, Va., fans filed into the Thomas Road Baptist Church sanctuary, shouting out cheers sporadically as the Flames appeared on TV.
<p>
“We’re definitely going to win tonight,” junior Adam Long said early in the contest from his perch in the Thomas Road balcony.
The eery feeling of hearing Kyle Ohman’s name attached to a blocked shot and seeing Alex McLean’s familiar gait down the court on TV soon wore off, but the cheering continued to fill the huge room at Thomas Road even when the Flames themselves could not hear it in person.
<p>
Hours south, Bulldog fans packed the 1,100-seat Justice Center at UNC-Asheville, shouting “You can’t stop him!” of their lauded big man toward the Flames few. The handful of fans that did make the trip saw Liberty contend after a season of difficult games on the road.
<p>
UNC-Asheville looked caught off guard early as Liberty raced to an 8-2 lead, but with 17:06 on the clock, George entered the game.  Liberty, looking more than a little intimidated to go up the middle, tossed in a three instead.  On the other end, George pulled in a pass...and plopped the ball in the basket for two — without leaving the ground.
<p>
Laughter overran the cheering as George made the game look easy, swatting away a pesky Liberty guard on one end and dunking over a Flames defender on the other.
As funny as it looked when the Flames’ guards looped underneath the basket beneath George’s arms on the offensive end, the chuckles turned to cheering when Liberty consistently hit treys from all around the arc.  The Flames showed no fold on the defensive end, either.
<p>
UNC-Asheville appeared to be moving underwater as Tee Jay Bannister flew through the defense for a crisp pass to Ohman, who then dished to McLean for a wide-open jam and a 23-18 lead at the eight-minute mark.
<p>
Liberty’s deep shooting went dry after the timeout as George returned to the game.  With just under five minutes to go in the half, the Bulldogs took their first lead of the game 24-23, and the Flames looked uncomfortable for the first time all night.  While Liberty had to work on every possession, the Bulldogs received instant offense each trip down the court. 
<p>
The Bulldogs went into the locker room up 33-27, and one Liberty student offered his analysis for the second half.
“As long as we do our job when (George)’s not in there, I think we’ll be fine,” senior Nathan Demaske said.  “It’s far from over.  The guy can’t play the whole game, so we’ve got to take advantage when he’s not in there.”
<p>
George was the obvious catalyst on a Bulldog squad that was continually stifled by Liberty defensively.  The big man ended the first half with 14 of the team’s 33 points, shooting five-for-six while the rest of the team made eight of its 17 shots.
McLean led the scoring for the Flames with 11 points, and K.J. Garland recorded eight for UNC-Asheville.

<p>
Bryan Smithson put a dagger in Liberty’s heart right out of intermission, drilling a three low in the shot clock with a hand in his face.  McLean went to work on the other end, though, going up hard against two white-clad Bulldogs to cut the lead to 36-31.
When the scoreboard showed 17:21, the behemoth came off the bench.  Undaunted, Bannister rose up and sank a three then ran to the other end and drew a charge.  Ohman split the net seconds later, and the game hung tied at 37.
Hope returned.
<p>
Liberty stayed active under its basket, sliding defensively at a frenetic speed as the ball swung quickly in the Bulldog offense.
Bannister came out of a late timeout spinning and weaving to find Smith for an inside jam.  Around the same time, however, the deep balls stopped dropping for the Flames.  McLean hit a three to pull Liberty within seven with five minutes left, but with no help beyond the arc, the future appeared grim.
<p>
“They stayed with our cutters a little bit better, and when I got to the middle, George played me a little bit more than he did last time, trying to come up and guard me,” Bannister said after the game, according to the News & Advance. “But we still had open shots.  We just didn’t hit too many.”
<p>
UNC-Asheville appeared to be in foul trouble, but four straight free throw misses by the Flames swung the momentum the other way as McKay opted to start fouling to try to cut the lead. The Bulldogs sank their foul shots and Liberty’s offense sputtered.
For all that McKay had brought to Liberty throughout the season, for all the fight Liberty showed throughout the game instead of wilting before such a foe — reality hit, and no doubt some were wondering how far the Flames would have gone this year had George decided to take his size 29 sneakers to a different fledgling conference.
<p>
McLean ended the night with 18 points on six-for-nine shooting, and Bannister scored 13 points and handed out five assists.  Although Liberty played a clean game (eight total turnovers), the team shot only nine-for-30 from beyond the arc and was out-rebounded 38-19.
<p>
“Everybody can’t be perfect every night,” Bannister said, according to the News & Advance.  “…You can’t get down on one game.”
George recorded a double-double of 19 points and 11 rebounds, missing only one shot.  Bryan Smithson logged 19 points and eight rebounds, and K.J. Garland added 17 for the victors.  The Bulldogs shot an unreal 61 percent (25-for-41) from the field.
<p>
After such a strong showing against VMI, the defeat was hard to swallow.  Liberty torched the Keydets from the three-point line, making 17 of 35 shots (48.6 percent).  Anthony Smith scored 30 points, Ohman put up 21 on seven-for-nine three-point shooting, B.J. Jenkins had 18 points and six assists, McLean recorded 13 points and 13 rebounds, and Bannister dished out 14 assists in the March 4 contest.
<p>
Thursday’s loss ended the season for the Flames, who were 16-16 overall and 7-7 in the conference.

Contact Jen Slothower at jrslothower@liberty.edu


Printable Version


» Men’s Hockey splits opening weekend series
» There’s no place like home
» Four minutes with Pat
» Flames volleyball dethrones Dukes
» Are athletes or reporters to blame?
» Men’s Soccer misfires in consecutive losses