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Blair's 37 Points Propels Flames To Upset Victory Over Top-Ranked Winthrop
Larry Blair saved one of his best performances of the season for the league's best team and his 37 points were good enough to lift Liberty to a 78-71 upset victory over Winthrop, Monday evening, at the Vines Center.
With the victory, the Flames up their conference record to 3-11 on the year (7-20 overall), while the win gives Liberty a one-game lead over VMI for the last spot in the upcoming Big South Basketball Championship with two games remaining.
The loss drops Winthrop to 11-3 in conference play (18-7 overall) and allows the Eagles to fall back into a two-way tie for first in the conference along with Birmingham-Southern with the two teams scheduled to square off against each other on Saturday in Birmingham, Ala. after a pair of home games on Thursday.
In a battle of two of the top ranked defenses in the league, it was Liberty that bested Winthrop as the Flames held the Eagles to just 36.8 percent shooting on the night (21-of-57), while the Flames shot 46.3 percent from the field (25-of-54).
The contest was truly a back-and-forth struggle as the game saw 15 lead changes and 16 times when the score was tied, while neither team led by more the six until late in the contest.
The two teams traded baskets over the first seven minutes of the game as Blair (Jr.. G. Charlotte, N.C.) knotted the game at 15-15 with 13:05 left to play by hitting one of two free throw attempts. Five minutes later, Torrell Martin took a pass from Otis Daniels to give Winthrop at two-point edge, 20-18, at the 8:47 mark.
A pair of free throws 90 seconds later by Daniels once again gave Winthrop a two-point lead, but Liberty reeled off six-straight points to take a four-point lead, 26-22, on a jumper by Anthony Smith (Fr., G, Plano, Texas) with 5:17 left to play before the break.
However, the Eagles countered back with a 7-0 run to take a three-point lead, 29-26, on a fast-break lay-up by Martin after a James Shuler steal at the 2:05 mark. Liberty was able to trim the lead back to as close as one point, but a three-pointer by Craig Bradshaw with 34 seconds left in the opening period allowed Winthrop to take a five-point edge, 36-31, into the locker room.
The Eagles continued to maintain their five-point edge over the first five minutes of the second half as an old fashion three-point play by Martin gave Winthrop a 46-41 lead with 15:00 left to play. But the Flames put together a 12-3 run over the next four-plus minutes of play, taking a four-point lead, 53-49, on a fast-break lay-up by Blair after a Smith steal with 10:21 left.
Five minutes later, Bradshaw sank a pair of free throws as Winthrop answered back with a 12-4 run, taking a four-point lead, 61-57, at the 5:31 mark. But the Flames countered once again as Liberty held Winthrop without a field goal over the next four minutes and outscored the visitors, 14-2, over the span to take a 71-63 lead after a pair of Evan Risher (So., G, Fort Worth, Texas) free throws at the 1:28 mark.
Winthrop didn't go down without a fight as Martin sank back-to-back three-pointers over a 25-second span to pull the Eagles within two points, 71-69, with 53 ticks left on the clock. But Blair wasn't going to let the victory slip away as the junior drove the lane on the ensuing possession, making the basket and drew the foul.
He made the free throw to put Liberty back up by five with 45 seconds left, while 22 seconds later, Blair blocked a shot by Chris Gaynor which would have pulled the Eagles within three points, but rather the deflection sealed the win for the Flames.
Blair posted his fifth 30-point game of the year and missed tying a career high by one point as the junior finished with 37 points on 13-of-23 shooting from the field and 10-of-11 from the free throw line. He also added six rebounds, four assists, two steals and the pivotal blocked shot.
Smith followed with 17 points and was a perfect 6-of-6 from the free throw line, helping the Flames shoot a season-best 85.7 percent from the free throw line (24-of-28), while Risher chipped in with 11 points and four assists.
Martin paced the way for the Eagles with 32 points on 11-of-20 shooting from the field, including 5-of-9 from three-point range, while leading the team with eight rebounds. Bradshow followed with 18 points and five rebounds.
The Flames will conclude their regular-season home schedule when they host Coastal Carolina in the Vines Center on Thursday for a 7 p.m. game, while Winthrop returns to Winthrop Coliseum on Thursday for a 7 p.m. game against High Point.