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Smith's Three Lifts Liberty to Victory
The game, scheduled as a return contest from last season's O'Reilly ESPNU BracketBuster game, was Liberty's most dramatic of the year, lifting the Flames to 4-4 on the year. The Flames have now won four of their last five games. Niagara, a 2006-07 NCAA Tournament team and defending Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champions, falls to 3-2.
Niagara drew first blood when Stanly Hodge hit a three-point bucket 15 seconds into the contest. The Purple Eagles would then go scoreless during the next three minutes, while the Flames scored 12-straight points, capped by a Rell Porter jumper from the right elbow at 17:07. The spurt prompted Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich to call a timeout.
Coming out of the break in action, Niagara cut the Liberty run with a three-point bucket by Demetrius Williamson at 15:08. Williamson's marker cut the lead to six, 12-6. After B.J. Jenkins sank a bucket on the next possession, Niagara connected on yet another three-pointer. Williamson cut the lead to five, 14-9, at 15:08 with his second three-point field goal.
Liberty extended the lead to a game-high 13 points, courtesy of an 11-3 spurt, capped by an Alex McLean tip-in at 8:38. The scoring burst gave Liberty a 27-14 advantage.
The Purple Eagles then opened up a 13-2 run, tying the contest at 29-29. Charron Fisher finished the spurt with a free throw, capping a three-point play at 4:20. Fisher went to the line after being fouled by Smith.
On Niagara's following possession, Jenkins fouled Anthony Nelson at the 3:53 mark. Nelson hit both of his attempts from the charity stripe, giving Niagara its first lead, 31-29, since the game's opening minutes.
Kyle Ohman's reverse layup at 2:00 tied the game at 35-35, and that's where it stood at the break, as neither team was able to tally any points in the first stanza's final two minutes.
Liberty connected on 53.8 percent (14-of-26) of its shots in the first half, while the Purple Eagles struggled from the field at 39.4 percent (13-of-33).
Niagara drew first blood coming out of the intermission when Fisher scored a bucket in the paint, giving the Purple Eagles the 37-35 advantage 45 seconds into the period.
The Flames then sprinted on a 12-4 surge, retaking the lead, 49-39, with 16:51 remaining in the contest. The ten-point edge would be the most Liberty would lead during the remainder of the game.
Niagara was able to trim the ten-point lead to two when Hodge hit a three-point bucket at 9:52, cutting the score to 60-58. Liberty went up four after two made free throws by Smith, 64-60, at 8:35. The Purple Eagles then tied the game on their next possession with an unconventional four-point possession.
Hodge was fouled by TeeJay Bannister, making one of his two attempts. Niagara then gained possession via a team rebound out of bounds. Fisher received the ball in the corner, nailing the three-point attempt to tie the game at 64 with 8:20 remaining.
That play energized Niagara, helping the Purple Eagle to jump out with a five-point lead of its own, 73-68, after a Benson Egemonye tip-in at 5:47.
The Purple Eagles extended the lead to six, 76-70, when Benson registered the three-point play at 4:47. Benson was fouled by Jenkins, making the field goal try, and his attempt from the charity line.
Liberty whittled Niagara's lead down to one when Jenkins faked an outlet pass to Ohman, instead keeping the ball and laying it up, cutting the lead to 78-77, with 1:09 left. Jenkins was fouled on the play by Nelson, his fifth and disqualifying foul. Jenkins missed the free throw attempt. During that run, Fisher, Niagara's leading scorer at 25.0 points per game, fouled out. With Fisher out, Niagara's lineup, which only ran seven deep, was vastly depleted.
Niagara came down the court and missed a lay-up by Williamson with 37 seconds left. Ohman grabbed the defensive rebound, setting the stage for the game's finish.
Smith took a Bannister hand-off after two set screens, knocking down the 20-footer at the top of the key, staking Liberty to an 80-78 advantage.
Niagara called a timeout, setting the stage for what looked like the game's final play. With nine seconds on the clock, Tyrone Lewis tried to go in for a lay-up before being blocked on the backside by Ohman. McLean grabbed the loose-ball rebound, prompting the game's dramatic climax.
McLean was fouled by Andrew Patterson with eight seconds left. Liberty was in the double-bonus, giving McLean two free attempts from the free throw line. While McLean knocked down his first attempt, extending the lead to 81-78, Niagara head coach Joe Mihalich received a double technical foul.
Liberty was granted four more free throws, which Jenkins knocked down all four, pushing the lead up to seven, 85-78. McLean still had one more attempt, which he hit, extending Liberty to a 86-78 lead and sealing the victory.
The Flames shot an astounding 71.4 percent (15-of-21) from the floor in the second half, finishing the contest at 61.7 percent (29-of-47). The hot shooting marked the first time Liberty has shot over 60 percent this season.
Niagara connected a little more frequently in the second half, 45.5 percent (15-of-33), finishing the game at 42.4 percent (28-of-66). The Purple Eagles used the three-point shot in the second half, connecting on 46.2 percent (6-of-13) to stay in the game.
All five Liberty starters reached double figures with Jenkins leading the way with a game-high 24 points on 7-of-10 shooting. Jenkins also grabbed four rebounds and dished out four assists. Bannister tallied 16 points and dished out a game-high seven assists, while tying a career high with five rebounds. Bannister grabbed five rebounds against Duke on March 11, 2005 while at Virginia.
Porter and Smith each chipped in 14 points. Porter matched a career high in points and three-point field goals with three. McLean rounds out the top performers with 12 points and eight rebounds.
Fisher led Niagara with 22 points and six rebounds. Hodge collected the game's only double-double with 14 points and a game-high 12 rebounds. Williamson added 19 points, while Egemonye chipped in 12 points in the loss.
Liberty returns to action on Tuesday when Presbyterian comes to town. Tip-off is slated for 8:15 p.m., inside the Vines Center. The game will be played as part of a doubleheader with the women's team. The Lady Flames face undefeated James Madison at 6 p.m.
Ritchie McKay's Quotes
"I have a ton of respect for Niagara. They have been to the tournament two out of the last three years. They have some experience and offensive weapons which are match-up nightmares. Niagara is very long and athletic. I am proud of our group, as this is a step for us."
"Anthony [Smith] is a good player and hadn't had a touch in while. I thought if we gave him two screens instead of one they would get stuck behind it. Anthony got a two-eye look and was able to hit it."