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A Geography Lesson

February 22, 2009  Lynchburg, Va.  RSS
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Amber Mays and the Lady Flames can clinch the outright Big South regular-season title with a win Monday night at Charleston Southern.

Amber Mays and the Lady Flames can clinch the outright Big South regular-season title with a win Monday night at Charleston Southern.

Liberty University is still situated on the East Coast of the United States, as it has been since the school's inception in 1971. However, a southpaw who originally hails from the West Coast and attended junior college in the Midwest is currently leading the Lady Flames women's basketball team northward in the Big South Conference standings. The source of this quite unusual geography lesson is junior point guard Amber Mays, who has made an immediate impact for Head Coach Carey Green's squad.

Like many high school basketball players, Mays hoped to earn a Division I college basketball scholarship upon graduation from Pasadena High School. The only offers to come her way were from Division II institutions, though.

"I felt like I could do better than that," recalled the 5-6 Mays. "So, I decided to attend junior college. I had to go out of state to get a junior college scholarship. So, that's how I ended up in Missouri."

Mays found a home at State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo., where she became a two-time honorable mention NJCAA All-American. It was also during Mays' time at State Fair that she caught the eye of new Liberty assistant coach Alexis Sherard. Mays was playing in a junior college tournament at Central Missouri when she first met Sherard.

The Lady Flames have not signed many junior college players during Green's 10 years at the helm, but found themselves in a difficult position when Sherard first spotted Mays. The team was set to lose stalwart point guard Allyson Fasnacht to graduation, leaving Liberty without an upperclassman for a floor general on the 2008-09 roster. Consequently, Green gave Mays a chance to fulfill her Division I dream, offering her a scholarship. Even though Mays admitted that life in Lynchburg, Va., provided a bit of a culture shock for her, she quickly took a liking to the Liberty campus.

"Everybody is so friendly around here," remarked Mays. "I like that, because I'm a people person. Also, our team has quickly bonded together and become like another family for me. I'm one of four girls in my family, and now I have a lot more sisters."

Mays has quickly endeared herself to the Liberty faithful as well, as a result of her explosiveness and production from the point guard position. The junior came off the bench for the first two games of the season, before taking the reins as the Lady Flames' starting floor general, a role she takes very seriously.

"As the point guard, I need to be the coach's second pair of eyes out on the floor," Mays stated. "I have to know what the coach is thinking and need to be able to think a couple plays ahead. I also have to know each player's role on our team."

Mays, who made the all-tournament team at the GW Thanksgiving Classic on Nov. 28-29, possesses a significantly different skill set from other Liberty floor generals of recent years. Evidence of her uncommon all-around ability shone through against Saint Paul's on Dec. 13. That afternoon, Mays tallied 10 points, eight assists, six rebounds and five steals, becoming the first Lady Flame to post a 10-5-5-5 stat line since Sharon Wilkerson on Feb. 18, 1999.

Despite her diminutive stature, she is adept at penetrating to the basket and either shooting a layup or passing off to an open teammate. As a result, Mays finds herself listed among the Big South's leaders in field goal percentage and assists.

Mays' first love is defense, though. "I like being aggressive at the defensive end of the court," exclaimed Mays. "Being able to stop key players from the opposing team and hold them well below their scoring average is great. It's also such an adrenaline rush to get a big steal and change the game."

The criminal justice major may one day apprehend thieves as part of her occupation. For the time being, however, Mays is herself a prolific thief on the hardwood, as she has wreaked havoc for opponents all season. Mays came up with eight steals in a key non-conference victory over East Tennessee State on Jan. 13, the most thefts by a Lady Flame since the 1999-2000 season.

Excelling on defense is nothing new for No. 21. She was tabbed her team's defensive player of the year four straight seasons at Pasadena High School.

"I haven't always been a good scorer, because I'm not the best shooter," said Mays. "So, I chose to focus more on defense. Everyone likes to shoot, but playing good defense is a real challenge, and I like that."

Such an attitude delights Green, who has consistently built his championship teams at Liberty around stellar defense and rebounding. After starting the season slowly due to the fact that the team experienced a rash of injuries, the Lady Flames' defense has been air-tight of late. Mays is the ringleader.

"Injuries hurt us a lot early on," explained Mays. "When we started getting players healthy, we were able to do more in practice and really jelled together. We knew we had to step up a lot after losing so many games to start the year.

"We're also getting better at rebounding and boxing out, which has been important for our defense. Coach Green is always getting on me to box out."

Continuing to improve defensively and on the glass will be vital to Mays and Lady Flames as they strive to achieve their goals for the remainder of the 2008-09 campaign.

"We definitely want to win the conference title," Mays noted. "We also want to continue praising God through playing basketball."

Mays' academic and athletic pursuits have gradually taken her farther away from Pasadena. However, her immense contributions have put the Lady Flames in the hunt for their 12th NCAA Tournament appearance. It just so happens that one of the 16 possible NCAA first and second-round sites is located in Los Angeles, just down the road from Mays' hometown. Such an opportunity would bring her unique geography lesson full circle.

Paul Carmany is an assistant athletics communications director for Liberty University who has covered women's basketball for three seasons.