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Flames' Season Ends at Winthrop, 80-72

March 2, 2010  Rock Hill, S.C.  RSS
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Jesse Sanders netted a career-high 25 points in Liberty's final game of the 2009-10 season.

Jesse Sanders netted a career-high 25 points in Liberty's final game of the 2009-10 season.

The Liberty men's basketball team looked to win its first Big South Championship game outside the Vines Center since 2001 on Tuesday night, stepping inside the Winthrop Coliseum to play the No. 3 Winthrop Eagles. Despite a career-high 25 points from point guard Jesse Sanders, the No. 6 seed Flames fell to the hosting Eagles, 80-72.

Playing in what is now his final game at Liberty, Kyle Ohman chipped in 22 points to finish 17th on Liberty's all-time scoring list with 1,141 points.

The Flames got off to a hot start early, scoring seven unanswered points off baskets from Sanders and Jeremy Anderson, taking the early lead at 17:47.

Winthrop's 9:25 drought in its season finale did not seem to carry during the ensuing 3:07, as the Eagles went on a 13-0 run highlighted by sharp shooting from Mantoris Robinson and Reggie Middleton, giving the Eagles a 13-7 edge at 14:40.

The Flames halted the Eagles scoring burst at 13:37, hitting a jumper to make it a two-possession game, 13-9. Winthrop's defense prevented Liberty from closing the gap further, stretching the margin out to 11 at 11:16, when Justin Burton nailed a jump shot, capping off a 7-0 spurt to make it 22-11.

Winthrop's offensive pace slowed over the next 5:43, allowing the Flames to climb back within single digits. Sanders picked the pocket of Middleton and proceeded to convert it into a layup at 5:22, cutting the Liberty deficit to six, 24-18.

Liberty could not trim the Eagles' advantage any further in the remainder of the period, as a Sanders three-point attempt to cut it to five rimmed out in the final seconds, allowing the Eagles to take an eight-point lead into the locker room at halftime 37-29.

Sanders and Middleton led all scorers at the half with 11 points each. The Eagles shot 50.0 percent from the field (15-of-30) in the period, while holding the Flames to 36.7 percent (11-of-30).

Winthrop reclaimed a double-digit margin in the opening minutes of the second half, jumping out to a 12-point lead at 16:53, thanks to a three-pointer by Reggie Middleton to make it, 45-33. With Winthrop still holding a 12-point edge at 14:42, Liberty proceeded to go on a 6-0 run over the next 92 seconds off foul shots from Ohman and Sanders and an Antwan Burrus layup to cut it to 47-41.

Ohman made it a five-point game at 12:45, sinking a shot from downtown to close the gap, 49-44. Winthrop countered with six-unanswered tallies courtesy of field goals from Andre Jones, Robinson and Gideon Gamble to up it to double digits again, 54-44, with 10:33 remaining.

The relentless Flames rallied during the next two minutes with a 10-2 burst, as Sanders capped off the run with a three-point shot to make it a one possession game at 8:38, 56-54. Winthrop led by a single tally 1:14 later, when Jesse Sanders converted on a traditional three-point play to slice away at Winthrop's advantage, 58-57.

The host team continued the up-and-down trend continued over the next three-plus minutes, as the Eagles outscored the Flames 13-4 to go up by 10 once again, 71-61. Down by nine with 3:27 left in the contest, Liberty rattled off six-straight point off a Sanders layup, as well as a foul shot and a trey by Ohman to cut it back three, 73-70, at 1:44.

With time winding down, Liberty was unable to close the gap any further. In the final minute, Winthrop capitalized at the free throw line, to advance to the semifinal round of the Big South Basketball Championship with the 80-72 win.

The Flames finish out the season with a 15-16 record, while Winthrop improves to 17-13. The Eagles will now head to Conway, S.C., for their next round matchup with No. 2 Radford, who edged Charleston Southern in the other quarterfinal matchup in overtime, 64-61.

Reggie Middleton led all players with 26 points, followed by Jesse Sanders and Ohman, who finished with 25 and 22 tallies, respectively. Sanders' scoring effort marked a career high, surpassing his previous best of 16. Robinson and Matt Morgan rounded out the double-digit scorers with 13 apiece. Robinson also added 10 rebounds to record a double-double.

Winthrop shot 50.0 percent (28-of-56) from the field in the contest, while holding the Flames to 39.3 percent (24-of-61). The Eagles finished the night hitting 7-of-18 (38.9 percent) from behind the three-point arc. The Flames matched the host team in makes, knocking down 7-of-26 (26,9 percent). Liberty and Winthrop mirrored each other in made free throws, as well. Winthrop hit 17-of-25 (68.0 percent), while the Flames connected on 17-of-23 shots (73.9 percent) from the charity stripe. Sixteen of Winthrop's 17 makes came in the second half.

Winthrop head coach Randy Peele
Opening Statement:
"Liberty's a very hard team to play and I had a great deal of respect for them coming into the game. As far as our team is concerned I am really proud of our ball club. At tournament time every game becomes a grind. Sometimes I think we take a little heat about our style of play, but our style of play wins championships. So, tonight's game was a grind out game.

On Reggie Middleton's career-high scoring night:
"The thing I love about Reggie (Middleton) is that Reggie played 28 minutes and he attacks you in transition. He gets you back on your heels and conversely I thought early on he pushed it so hard he got them in retreat mode and because of that he opened up some looks from the perimeter."

On looking forward to Radford in semifinals:
"We played a great game against them the other night and I can't tell you how proud I was of our guys. It was a game in 50's which is what we know it needs to be. We match up with them well and we got looks and just didn't make them. We're looking forward to playing and we're excited about playing them and we believe we can beat them."

Reggie Middleton, So. Winthrop
On his career-high scoring night coming in the tournament:
"Coach reminded me that I needed to step up and play big. I'd never had a chance to get tournament time (after being injured last year), so I just tried to make the best of it."

Liberty head coach Dale Layer
Opening Statement:
"I thought it was a very well played game. I'm looking at stat sheets and (Winthrop's) not shot the ball that well against anybody but us. You've got to give them credit. They're a very, very good defensive team. They've got great experience and toughness. They took everything that we threw at them, but at the same time I'm extremely proud of our players—how they withstood a barrage of made shots, how they took punch after punch, figuratively, and battled back and we had shots down the stretch but couldn't quite pull it out. But, you've got to give them great credit."

On Reggie Middleton:
"I thought he made contested shots, made big shots, made good decisions. He played like a veteran and was probably the difference in the game."

Kyle Ohman, Sr., Liberty
On trying to close gap late in the game:
"We tried to mix the defenses up a little bit on them to keep them uncomfortable, but they got a couple of baskets. But, when the game was real touchy at the end we were trying to play real physical with them because they're a physical team. You can't get a stop when they're going to the free throw line every time. It's hard to put stops together when the game's like that, not that we didn't get the same calls on the other end. It's just hard to put together when that's happening.