Feb 2, 2010

Liberty lights up VMI

by Daniel Martinez

Rebounds tend to take a backseat to points when it comes to important basketball statistics. After all, the team with the most points wins the game. Yet, when questioned about the most important aspect of their 91-73 defeat of Virginia Military Institute (VMI) Thursday night, members of the Liberty University men’s basketball team were unanimous.

“Rebounding was a real big key tonight,” freshman forward Antwan Burrus said.

“The offensive glass,” sophomore guard Jesse Sanders said, using the statistic’s less specific name.

Those guys would know. Sanders and Burrus led the Flames — with 15 and 13 rebounds, respectively — in grabbing loose balls out of the air at either end of the court, leading to a team total of 53. That was more than double VMI’s 25.

“We needed every one of them,” Liberty head coach Dale Layer said.

It was the second time this month that the Flames squared off against the Keydets, the other match being Liberty’s road victory in a 110-102 shootout on Jan. 2. More than 3,500 students and guests packed the Vines Center to watch the Flames, who came in with a 10-11 record and playing without leading scorer Kyle Ohman, who had wrist surgery to repair a fractured scaphoid bone the week before. But the team’s hopes were high after Saturday’s solid comeback win over conference rival Radford.

The Keydets 7-foot center, Stephen Sargent, won VMI the opening tip-off, but its first shot missed. The Flames recovered the ball, and the Vines Center’s mounted flamethrowers blazed to life on the game’s first points when freshman forward Patrick Konan dunked the team’s way to a 2-0 lead. VMI guard Austin Kenon tied the game with a two-point jumper seconds later, and the battle was on in a first half that would see four lead changes and six ties.

From the start, the Flames got a solid team effort, as they passed the ball around and set up shots for each other, but they were not able to break away from the Keydets tough man-to-man defense. They were challenged on every shot and every step. Yet VMI could not pull away, either, as their normally prolific three-point shooting ability appeared to abandon them. Shot after shot clanked off the rim or banged off the backboard.

“Not good,” Keydets coach Duggar Baucom said of his team’s lack of ability from three-point range.

That was where the rebounding came in. With so many loose balls bouncing off the floor or sailing through the air — up for grabs — it was a telltale sign of the Flames’ determination that the 6-foot-3-inch Sanders and 6-foot-6 Burrus dominated the game under both baskets, even against Sargent.

“Huge,” Sanders said of the way Burrus was able to jump with the Keydets tallest and frequently come down with the ball. “I felt like every time I was driving I couldn’t buy a shot, but every time I missed it I’d look back and Antwan’s grabbing it and putting it back in.”

But it was not two guys who kept Liberty in the game with a five-point lead heading into halftime. Sophomore guard David Minaya scored eight points in the half, freshman guard Chris Perez added six, and sophomore guard Jeremy Anderson had five.

After halftime, the Flames returned to the court, and immediately played with what Sanders said Layer stressed during the break — intensity. Anderson missed a three-pointer on the Flames’ first shot of the second half, but the ball was immediately snatched out of the tangle of arms by Konan, whose score increased the lead to seven. That was just the beginning. Complemented by three missed three-pointers by the Keydets, Liberty scored 15 of the first 20 points of the half, rolling to a lead that grew as large as 18 points with 10 minutes remaining.

The key player in seizing the early momentum was Konan, who scored 10 of those 15 early Liberty points and all but two of his points in the half.

“He did a great job of bringing energy,” Sanders said. “He was working the offensive glass, talking on defense and going for the rim.”

The Keydets seized some momentum of their own with about eight minutes left, turning a few missed shots and intercepted passes into a streak of seven unanswered points — and cut the lead down to seven — but the Flames recovered and had little trouble sealing the victory. Freshman guard Evan Gordon led the Flames with 16 points in the half.

The victory came despite the Flames allowing 24 points to guard Keith Gabriel, whose mark was the game high. The Flames made 56.3 percent of their shots in the contest while VMI made just 37.3 percent. Burrus led the home team with 20 points, followed by Gordon’s 18 and Konan’s 17. Sanders complemented his 15 rebounds with 10 points.

“Everybody pulled together,” Burrus said of the team effort.
The win improved the Flames to .500 on the season, with 11 wins and 11 losses, and more importantly brought them to 6-4 in the Big South Conference. Their next contest is on Feb. 4 against Winthrop.

“All that matters is that conference record,” Sanders said.

Contact Daniel Martinez
at dpmartinez@liberty.edu.

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