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UNC Asheville Edges Liberty in Epic Final, 64-62

March 13, 2016  Asheville, N.C.  RSS
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Bronaza Fitzgerald's hoop from close range with 8.6 seconds remaining in the second overtime lifted No. 1 seed UNC Asheville to a thrilling 64-62 victory over No. 2 seed Liberty in the 2016 Big South Women's Basketball Championship title game at a boisterous Kimmel Arena, Sunday afternoon.

Ashley Rininger, whose 22 points paced all players, had a chance to tie the game but could not connect. After the Bulldogs' KJ Weaver missed two free throws, Mickayla Sanders heaved up a half-court shot, but it sailed wide left and Asheville celebrated its second Big South Championship title and first since 2007.

Liberty (20-12) falls to 16-2 all-time in Big South Championship title game appearances, despite the best efforts of Rininger (who also added eight rebounds), and Catherine Kearney (10 points, 12 rebounds), whose putback forced the second overtime period. Kearney was named to the all-tournament team after averaging 12.3 ppg and 11.7 rpg for the tournament.

Fellow senior Sadalia Ellis joined Kearney on the all-tournament team despite leaving Sunday's game just 2:52 into the first quarter due to injury. In her absence, sophomore Candice Leatherwood gave a gutty effort, finishing with nine points, a career-high seven assists and only two turnovers in a program-record 49 minutes played.

Liberty will now play in the Postseason WNIT for the second time in program history, following its appearance in 2011. The Lady Flames will learn their first-round matchup, location and date late Monday evening.

Led by tournament MVP Chatori Major (21 points), Asheville (26-6) will make its second NCAA Division I Women's Basketball Championship appearance. Major was joined on the all-tournament team by teammate Tianna Knuckles (8 points, 6 rebounds) and Alyssa Mann of Charleston Southern.

The Big South's 14th all-time matchup between the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds marked the first time a Big South Championship title game has gone to overtime in the tournament's 30-year history. Liberty's first-ever overtime contest in the Big South Championship and the Lady Flames' first overtime game of the year equaled the longest contest in program history. Liberty has now gone to double overtime on five occasions all-time.

Also the Big South Player of the Year, Major scored the game's first six points, giving Asheville a 6-0 lead just 1:45 into the contest. Led by Rininger's eight first-quarter points, Liberty then closed the quarter with an 11-0 run, taking an 18-12 lead after 10 minutes.

The Lady Flames also tallied the first five points to start the second quarter, extending the overall run to 16-0. A Jaymee Fisher-Davis triple punctuated the run, lifting Liberty to a 23-12 edge at the 8:19 mark. Back-to-back three-pointers by Major and Knuckles capped off an 8-0 Asheville surge, trimming the deficit to 23-20 with 5:11 to play in the second quarter. However, the Bulldogs managed only one more field goal the rest of the half, and Liberty owned a 30-23 halftime edge. The game marked the first time this season that the Lady Flames lost when leading at halftime, though.

Liberty outrebounded Asheville, 25-17, before halftime and held Asheville to 26.7 percent (8-of-30) from the field.

After Kearney opened the third-quarter scoring with a layup, the Bulldogs responded with a 10-2 run, pulling to within one, 34-33, on Jessica Wall's shot clock buzzer-beating three-pointer at the 4:17 mark. Liberty never relinquished the lead during the quarter but led by just one (39-38) heading to the fourth quarter.

The final 20 minutes of basketball featured nine ties and nine lead changes, including six deadlocks and seven lead changes in the fourth quarter alone. Rininger's layup with 47.2 seconds remaining tied things up at 53-53. Both teams missed potential game-winning shots, and the game headed to overtime.

Rininger tallied Liberty's first five points of overtime, before Knuckles put Asheville in front, 60-58, at the 35.7-second mark. Kearney evened the score on a putback with 20.7 seconds to play, before Knuckles had a chance to win it for the Bulldogs but misfired from long range.

After Asheville's Paige Love scored on a layup in transition just 21 seconds into the second overtime, neither team found the hoop again until another putback by Kearney with 19.7 ticks remaining tied the score at 62-all.

Major drove to the basket on Asheville's ensuing possession but found herself surrounded by defenders under the hoop. She threaded a pass to an open Fitzgerald in the middle of the paint for what proved to be the game winner, and Asheville joined Liberty (2004 and 2013) as the only Big South schools ever to win the conference's men's and women's basketball titles in the same year.

In a physical game, points were hard to come by. Liberty shot 32.9 percent (24-of-73) from the field, 28.6 percent (4-of-14) from three-point range and 66.7 percent (10-of-15) at the foul line.

Meanwhile, Asheville shot 26.6 percent (21-of-79) from the floor, 27.3 percent (9-of-33) from beyond the three-point arc and 65 percent (13-of-20) from the charity stripe.

Liberty finished with a slim 53-52 rebounding edge in a game where both teams hit the offensive glass hard. The Lady Flames turned 20 offensive boards into 21 points, while Asheville's 25 offensive caroms resulted in 25 points.

The two teams combined for only 19 turnovers, despite playing 10 minutes of extra basketball.

Rininger helped the Lady Flames rack up a season-high 35 bench points, while scoring her most points since she had 23 in the Nov. 13 season opener at UNC Asheville.

Kearney's double-double was her second of the tournament, her sixth of the year and the ninth of her career. The New Jersey native also rejected a game-high four shots.

Fisher-Davis hit three triples for the second straight game, finishing with nine points and a career-high eight rebounds in a career-high 40 minutes played. In total, four Lady Flames (Leatherwood, Fisher-Davis, Rininger – 39 and Sanders – 38) played 38 or more minutes on Sunday.

Katelyn Adams added six points, eight rebounds and a pair of blocks for the Lady Flames.

It was truly a team effort for Asheville, which swept the Big South regular-season and tournament titles for the first time in program history. Five players scored eight or more points and five Bulldogs grabbed six or more rebounds.