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Flames Advance to Big South Championship Final
|Flames guard Tavares Speaks (right) finished with 10 points|
The Liberty men's basketball team ended a nine-year streak without a Big South Championship finals appearance, defeating No. 2 South seed Gardner-Webb, 65-62, in Saturday's semifinals matchup.
The Flames (14-20) will meet No. 1 North seed Charleston Southern tomorrow in the tournament final. Tipoff is slated for noon, with the contest airing live on ESPN2.
John Caleb Sanders paced the Flames offense with 19 points, followed by Joel Vander Pol (11) and Tavares Speaks (10). Vander Pol also collected seven boards to go with his scoring effort off the bench.
Tashan Newsome and Max Landis led the Runnin' Bulldogs (21-12) with 15 points, apiece. Point guard Tyler Strange finished with 12 tallies followed by Kevin Hartley, who closed out Gardner-Webb's scoring with 10 points.
The Flames shot 46.8 percent (22-of-47) from the field, compared to 39.2 percent (20-of-51) for the Runnin' Bulldogs. Dale Layer's squad outscored Gardner-Webb in the paint, 26-8. Gardner-Webb made up for the difference from the three-point arc, going 10-of-26 from downtown. Liberty finished the night shooting 62.5 percent from three-point land (5-of-8).
Liberty jumped out to an early 10-5 lead off baskets by Andrew Smith, Sanders and a Tomasz Gielo three-pointer. The Runnin' Bulldogs bit back with a pair of treys from Kevin Hartley to briefly take the lead. Liberty then responded with a 7-0 run off buckets from Casey Roberts, Vander Pol and Speaks to claim a 17-11 advantage at 10:55.
Harper helped cut Garnder-Webb's deficit to three with under nine minutes left in the period. However, the Flames widened the gap with a trifecta by Sanders. On the next Gardner-Webb possession, Speaks came up with the steal and fed it to Davon Marshall, who ran up the court and found Gielo open for the 2-on-1 fast break alley-oop. Following a Newsome jumper, Marshall knocked down his 94th three-pointer of the season, putting the Flames ahead by seven, 26-19, at 6:11.
Gardner-Webb outscored Liberty, 7-2, in the ensuing 4:06, making it a two-point game with just over two minutes remaining in the period. A Smith layup gave the Flames some more breathing room, but a Landis three-pointer cut the Runnin' Bulldogs deficit to one. After a Vander Pol layup, Newsome closed the half with a free throw, allowing Liberty to carry a 32-30 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Liberty shot 48.1 percent (13-of-27) in the opening period, while the Runnin' Bulldogs closed the half with 41.7 percent shooting (10-of-24). The Flames outscored Gardner-Webb in the paint, 16-4, but the No. 2 South seed made up for some of the difference from the perimeter. Despite Liberty holding its opponents to 14.3 percent (5-of-35) from three-point range in the first two tournament games, Gardner-Webb hit 5-of-10 (50.0 percent) from downtown in the first half.
Newsome opened the second stanza with a short jumper to knot the contest at 32. Liberty then went on a 7-0 burst capped by a Sanders trey. Newsome broke the streak with another jumper, while Jerome Hill followed with two free throws, cutting the Liberty lead to three, 39-36, at 15:48.
Liberty outscored the Runnin' Bulldogs 10-2 over the next 2:36 to stretch its advantage to 11. Marshall's second three-pointer of the game gave the Flames the double digit lead, but three-pointers from Strange and Landis cut Liberty's advantage to five, 49-44, with 12:23 left in the contest.
With the Flames ahead by eight with 8:12 remaining, Gardner-Webb erased its deficit within five minutes. A Tyler Strange three-pointer knotted the game at 62 with 3:21 left on the clock. Liberty was able to reclaim the lead under the two-minute mark, thanks to a Vander Pol free throw. Gielo was able to grab two key rebounds on opposite ends of the floor in the remaining seconds, setting up two Marshall free throws to seal the 65-62 victory.