Tourney heartbreak

Lady Flames unable to come back from 14-point halftime deficit

At their heels — Junior guard Sadalia Ellis attacks the paint against the Tar Heels in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo credit: Kevin Manguiob

At their heels — Junior guard Sadalia Ellis attacks the paint against the Tar Heels in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo credit: Kevin Manguiob

With about nine minutes to go in the second half in an already loud Carmichael Arena on the University of North Carolina (UNC) campus, the Carolina faithful began to yell their common “Tar” “Heels” chant, and the fans clad in red — more than 600 of them, according to Liberty Athletic Director Jeff Barber — shouted back the “L” “U” chant with just as much fervor.

“I noticed (the Liberty fans and noise) before the game started,” UNC sophomore forward Stephanie Mavunga said. “I remember … all this red was walking in, and that came in before the blue. … I’m thinking, ‘OK, we’re bordering states, but still.’ … Liberty did a good job of bringing those fans in for sure.”

However, despite having the support of the “sixth man” in the form of hundreds of Liberty students who traveled two hours to Chapel Hill to watch their team Saturday, March 22, the No. 13 seed Lady Flames (26-7) were unable to complete the comeback over fourth-seeded UNC. Even though they outrebounded the Tar Heels 52-35, the Lady Flames could not overcome a 14-point halftime deficit and poor shooting to pull off the upset, ultimately losing 71-65.

“We’re happy to come out with the win,” UNC Head Coach and Naismith Hall of Famer Sylvia Hatchell said. “It’s been a couple weeks since we’ve played. (We were) very rusty at times. … These (girls), they worked hard and it pulled it through for us. … I knew it was going to be a tough game, because Liberty is tough. This is just typical of these first-round games you’ve been seeing in the men’s and women’s tournaments.”

A fast-paced, up-and-down first few minutes favored the Lady Flames, who went into the first media timeout with the 8-6 lead. But the lead was short-lived, and Liberty’s shooting went ice cold for the remainder of the half.

Liberty shot a measly 25 percent from the field on 8-32 shooting, including 0-7 from three-point range, in the half. A 7-0 UNC spurt at the end of the first period put the Lady Flames in a tough position as they went into the locker room. UNC made 51.6 percent of its shots in the half.

Haunting the Heels — Redshirt junior Ashley Rinninger led all scorers with 19 points. Photo credit: Kevin Manguiob

Haunting the Heels — Redshirt junior Ashley Rinninger led all scorers with 19 points. Photo credit: Kevin Manguiob

“We made some mistakes during the first half, and (UNC) shot the ball very well and put us in a hole,” Lady Flames Head Coach Carey Green said. “We showed determination and character in the second half, and certainly came back and showed what we’re made of … (I’m) certainly pleased and very proud of this team.”

Much like the first half, Liberty started the second period strong, scoring four points right out of the gate. However, another rough shooting stretch following the 4-0 start left the Lady Flames in the same position they were in at halftime.

Liberty continued to fight through the remainder of the half, and the Lady Flames were able to drastically increase their shooting percentage to 43.2 percent. Behind solid performances from redshirt senior guard Karly Buer, who finished the game with 14 points, and redshirt junior forward Ashley Rininger, who ended the day with a double-double on 19 points and 13 rebounds, the Lady Flames were able to cut into the deficit.

Although the Lady Flames seemed to be clicking and connecting more on offense, they were never able to get closer than six, as they were unable to string together defensive stops. Every time Liberty got within close range, UNC answered.

“North Carolina is a very, very good team, and they’re tough,” redshirt senior guard Emily Frazier, who finished the game with seven points, seven assists and eight rebounds, said. “We’d go on a run, and they’d just knock us out. … I do feel like (a defensive stop) would have given us a lot more confidence. It would have given us a boost.”

In the final minutes of the game, Buer hit Liberty’s first three — the Lady Flames finished 3-18 from behind the arc — but it was not enough, and Liberty ultimately lost by six to the storied ACC team.

UNC senior guard Latifah Coleman finished the game with 15 points. Sophomore guard Allisha Gray led UNC with 17, and Mavunga battled Liberty’s height in the post to score 12 points.

Liberty finished the game shooting 34.8 percent, while UNC hit 49.1 percent of its shots. Despite the rough shooting display, a height and rebounding advantage led to 22 second-chance points for the Lady Flames. Liberty’s bench also outscored the UNC’s, 22-14.

In addition to what Liberty was able to accomplish on the court, Green acknowledged the contributions of the fans in the Lady Flames final game of the season.

“I’m biased when I make this statement, but I think our fans were louder than the Carolina fans,” Green said. “I think they may have had us outnumbered a little bit, but it was almost 50-50. … The buses that came down, and the fans, hopefully they got their money’s worth. They should have. That’s their fault if they didn’t. They picked us up. They were the sixth man to encourage us, … and we’re thankful for that.”

BROWN is the editor-in-chief.

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