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Seeking A Great Grand Finale
The most-anticipated part of any fireworks show is the grand finale. Spectators know the display is nearing completion when an extended series of fireworks is shot off in rapid succession, lighting up the sky and producing deafening sound effects. July 4 is the best chance to catch some high-quality grand finales in the sky, but Liberty's No. 4, Courtney Watkins, is crafting quite a grand finale of her own during her fourth season in the Lady Flames' backcourt.
For Watkins, who had displayed flashes of her potential throughout her first three years at Liberty, her performance at North Carolina A&T in the second game of the 2007-08 season proved to be a harbinger of things to come during her senior campaign. In a hard-fought contest against the current MEAC leader, the senior two guard scored a career-high 15 points, to go along with five boards and five assists. Her third three-pointer of the night, coming with 3:36 left, gave the Lady Flames the lead for good in a 68-64 triumph.
Watkins, who has yet to miss a game during her college career, followed up her outing in Greensboro by scoring double figures in five of the next six tilts, establishing herself as a consistent offensive threat on the perimeter. Watkins' emergence as a senior has been no accident. Rather, it is a product of her hard work during the offseason.
"I was not very happy with my shooting percentage the last two years," noted the Bristol, Tenn., native. "So, I really focused on my shooting, taking more shots every day over the summer. Personally, confidence has been key as well."
Watkins has hovered around 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range all season, ranking among the Big South leaders in both categories. Voted one of the Lady Flames' three captains this season, the senior has aided the team's success in intangible ways as well.
"I'm not a vocal leader," noted Watkins. "Allyson [Fasnacht] and Megan [Frazee] are much more vocal than I am. However, I try to lead by example."
The leadership of tri-captains Fasnacht, Frazee and Watkins has played a role in Liberty's best start to a season in 10 years. A few "c" words have also been important for head coach Carey Green's Lady Flames.
"We're playing with consistency, which our team lacked a season ago," stated Watkins, during a comparison between last year's squad and the 2007-08 Lady Flames. "As a team, we have been more consistent in having confidence in each other. Our team chemistry and unity is the best it has been since my freshman year. Finally, each person has developed into a better player."
To continue with the theme of words beginning with "c," such qualities have given Liberty composure in close contests. A season ago, the Lady Flames went only 6-10 in games decided by 10 points or less and saw their 10-year run of Big South titles halted with a two-point setback. This year, Liberty has been victorious in six of its first seven tight games, including one which was special for Watkins.
On Jan. 8, Liberty traveled to Johnson City, Tenn., for a non-conference tilt with East Tennessee State. The game was played at the Memorial Center, just 15 minutes from where Watkins grew up. The proximity allowed a sizable and vocal contingent of the 5-9 guard's friends and family to cheer her and the Lady Flames on in person. Watkins totaled 12 points and three assists, helping Liberty come from behind for a 64-60 nailbiter.
"The East Tennessee State game was very important and special to me," recalled Watkins. "I was amazed that we played so close to my hometown. I really wanted to play well for all the people who came to watch me.
"It helped me put things into perspective. I realized I need to play that way during every game."
Watkins knows from experience it will take such a sense of urgency by her and the rest of the Lady Flames to reach their goals and objectives. As a freshman, Watkins played the most minutes of any Liberty reserve. Never was her role more important than when she came off the bench for seven points and three rebounds during Liberty's victory over DePaul, which propelled the Lady Flames into the "Sweet 16." Watkins lists the team's March Madness experience as the best athletic memory during her time at Liberty.
As for the most lasting off-the-court memories Watkins will take away, she stated, "It's definitely the relationships I've built with my teammates. I've had the chance to have four years with some great teammates. I couldn't have picked a better place to attend college and play basketball."
Watkins, who began her basketball career as the only girl on a co-ed team at the local YMCA in third and fourth grade, almost didn't end up attending Liberty. "Liberty was the last of my five official visits," Watkins remembered. "However, I really enjoyed it and felt like Liberty was where the Lord wanted me to be."
Joining the Lady Flames also offered Watkins the opportunity to learn from a fellow Volunteer State native, Green. The recent addition to the career 200-win club has imparted some important lessons to Watkins, on and off the court.
"Coach Green has helped me grow spiritually," explained Watkins. "He's helped show me that, while basketball is important, it's most important to honor and glorify God in everything we do. Also, I've learned basketball is something which we can use to honor and glorify Him."
Watkins hopes to share some of her acquired knowledge with others in the future. A psychology major as an undergraduate student, she is currently working toward a Master of Education degree in counseling and administration through Liberty's Distance Learning Program (DLP). Watkins aspires to be a guidance counselor and a basketball coach upon graduation.
In the meantime, Watkins will continue to mentor her younger Lady Flames teammates as a team captain, leading them by example. She got the unique opportunity to experience the "Sweet 16" as a freshman, marking a spectacular opening salvo to her collegiate career. Now, Watkins hopes to close out her time at Liberty in a similar fashion, giving the rest of the squad the same experience. What a fitting grand finale that would be.
Paul Carmany is an assistant athletics media relations director for Liberty University who covers women's basketball.