No. 3 seed Winthrop will play in the VisitMyrtleBeach.com Big South Women's Basketball Championship game for the first time since 1996 after posting a hard-fought 65-59 victory over the two-time defending tournament champion, No. 2 seed Liberty, in Saturday evening's semifinal clash at The HTC Center. Now 23-8, Winthrop will face No. 1 seed High Point (22-9) in the championship game Sunday at 5 p.m. on ESPN3. The Panthers notched a 73-69 victory over No. 4 seed Campbell in Saturday evening's first semifinal tilt. This is the first time in tournament history that neither Liberty nor Radford will appear in the championship game. Liberty, which had defeated the Eagles during both regular-season matchups, falls to 20-11. The Lady Flames, who failed to advance to the Big South Championship title game for the first time since 2007, will now hope for their second WNIT bid in program history. The WNIT field will be announced on March 17. Trailing by nine points with 4:10 remaining, Liberty reeled off seven of the game's next eight points. Mickayla Sanders' spinning hoop in the paint with 47.1 seconds left made it a one-possession game at 59-56. Winthrop then made all six of its free throw attempts the rest of the way, sealing its first-ever tournament victory over Liberty in six tries. Big South Player of the Year Dequesha McClanahan paced the victors with 15 points, while freshman Erica Williams posted her 10th double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) of the season. Tiffany Charles came off the bench for a season-high 12 points and four of her team's 11 steals. The Eagles' Schaquilla Nunn became Winthrop's career blocked shots leader with her lone rejection of the night. The sophomore has already rejected 171 shots in two seasons. Liberty freshman Mickayla Sanders topped all players with 19 points, and added a career-high eight rebounds. Ashley Rininger's 16th double-double of the year consisted of 16 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. She also dished out a career-high four assists and blocked three shots. Katelyn Adams added nine points for the Lady Flames, while Sadalia Ellis distributed a game-high five assists. Winthrop finished the game at 40 percent (22-of-55) from the field, as compared with 36.5 percent (23-of-63) for the Lady Flames. Liberty shot just 29.2 percent from three-point range, but broke the program single-season record with seven made triples. The Lady Flames have now connected on 175 three-pointers this season. The nation's No. 1-ranked team for rebound margin, Liberty won the battle of the boards, 45-32, and scored 32 bench points to Winthrop's 13. The Eagles tied the Big South Championship record for fewest turnovers with seven and got to the free throw line more than twice as often as the Lady Flames (23-10). Winthrop made 16 of its 23 charity tosses for 69.6 percent. Winthrop missed its first nine field goal attempts of the evening, but was able to take a 5-4 lead on its first connection, a Taylor Calvert triple from the top of the key at the 14:51 mark. Rininger scored four points during Liberty's ensuing 7-0 run, including a baseline jumper at 13:05 which lifted the Lady Flames to an 11-5 lead. Samiya Wright capped off a 6-0 Winthrop burst with a triple from the left wing, putting the Eagles back in front, 17-16, 8:38 before halftime. Liberty briefly reclaimed the advantage on Tesh Hanson's layup 13 seconds later, before Winthrop fashioned a 13-2 run. McClanahan scored the surge's last five points, including a pull-up jumper in transition at 2:39 which gave the Eagles a double-digit lead at 30-20. The Lady Flames battled back to within six (32-26) before Winthrop took a 34-26 cushion into the intermission. After starting 1-of-13 from the field, Winthrop made 13 of its last 22 field goal attempts to close the opening half, shooting 40 percent (14-of-35) for the period. Meanwhile, Liberty made 34.4 percent (11-of-32) of its first-half field goal tries. The Lady Flames owned a 24-18 rebounding edge prior to halftime, but Winthrop scored 18 points in the paint to Liberty's 10. Rininger tallied six points of a 9-0 Liberty run early in the second half. The redshirt sophomore's pair of free throws with 12:42 left gave the Lady Flames a short-lived 41-40 edge. Winthrop scored on its next two trips to the offensive end, thanks to hoops from Calvert and Williams, and went ahead for good. Liberty made only two field goals over the next eight minutes, during which time the Eagles' lead expanded to nine. Williams' old-fashioned three-point play at the 4:10 mark put gold-clad Winthrop on top, 58-49, with just 4:10 left.
Quotes: Winthrop Head Coach Kevin Cook: "First off I would like to say what a tough program, what a great program Liberty is and what a class coach Mr. Green is. He is a good man and a good coach. They gave us a very, very tough ball game." "This game was about our players. This game of basketball is about the players. I am very proud of their efforts tonight. They followed the game-plan to a tee. We will be ready and we will show up tomorrow night." "It is a one-game series. We played two one-game series to get to this point and you have to win one game. It is for all the marbles and it is going to be a heck of a ball game."
Liberty Head Coach Carey Green: "First of all, we would like to congratulate Winthrop and wish them the best as they go into the championship game. It was one of those hard-fought games and just a few plays separated the two teams." "I am proud of the effort that my team put forth. It just comes down to we have to make some shots. They shot a higher percentage from the field, they shot a higher percentage from three point range and they got to the free throw line much more than we did. We were just a little too inconsistent with our shooting and again, we would like to wish them the very best as they go into the championship game."