Saturday, April 30, 2011

Reflection: Liberty

Avery Warley
2010-11 season: 22-11. Lost in the Big South Tournament championship to Gardner-Webb 67-66; Lost in the first round of the WNIT to Charlotte, 62-56

Who's leaving: Dymond Morgan 4.3 ppg, 1.9 rpg; Rachel McLeod 2.5 ppg, 1.1 rpg; Kittery Maine 1.5 ppg, 1.4 rpg

Who's coming: Katelyn Adams, 6-5 forward/center, Minnehaha Academy (Minn.): Defending state champion Minnehaha was state runner-up in Class AA; Adams played in the MCBCA All-Star game; Catherine Kearney, 6-5 center, Gloucester County Christian (N.J.): Averaged 27.1 ppg, amassing 569 points her senior year;Off an assist by sister Sarah, Catherine scored her 2,000th point, the only player in Tri-State Christian Athletic Conference with that distinction; Reagan Miller, 5-7 guard, Sanger (Texas): Led Sanger to a District 9-3A title; Competed   in the Class 3A-under game and in the Texas Girls Coaches Association All-Star Game; MVP 9-3A District; Ashley Rininger, 6-4 center, Glenoak (Ohio): Honorable mention AP Divison I All-Ohio, Averaged 14.6 ppg and 9.9 rpg her senior year; Carries a 4.14 GPA

High point: A 59-57 win at VCU, the regular-season sweep of Gardner-Webb and a top seed-clinching 72-58 decision over UNC Asheville were all highlights. But our favorite result was a 75-71 win over Longwood in which Devon Brown scored 21of her 27 points in the second half to rally the Flames from a 10-point deficit.

Low point: A 50-48 loss at North Carolina Central (RPI 325), a defeat that has to rank among the worst in the program's Division I history.

Stock: Holding steady.

Given that virtually everyone was returning from a 27-win, NCAA Tournament team, a Big South tournament runner-up that loses in the first round of the WNIT wasn't exactly what Liberty coach Carey Green - or anyone else for that matter - had in mind. He elevated the schedule, but do you think he even would have guessed that Liberty would square off against eventual national champ Texas A&M and Final Four participant Baylor?

Losses to that caliber of team don't hurt you. Unfortunately for the Lady Flames, those other losses got in the way of the type of marquee season Liberty seemed destined for. The first hurdle wasn't an opponent, it was Devon Brown. A first-team All-Big South performer as a freshman in 2009-10, Brown missed the first seven games with a knee injury and a nagging dancer's toe injury. Liberty's offense suffered; the sophomore guard wasn't in the lineup for either Texas A&M or Baylor, games when they managed 49 and 42 points of offense, respectively.

Even with Brown back, Liberty didn't dominate the Big South in typical fashion. Radford stunned Liberty, which committed 21-second half turnovers that led to the first Highlanders victory at the Vines Center since 1996. The string of 28 consecutive victories over Charleston-Southern came to an end with a 54-51 Lady Buccaneers win in February. And then the biggest disappointment of them all, a one-point loss by the top seeds to Gardner-Webb in the Big South title game -- Liberty's first-ever loss in 14 trips to the tournament final.

Turnovers are the telling stat for Liberty. The Lady Flames ranked 299th in Division I in this category (20.5 per game). That's a ton of empty possessions and more than anything else defined why the Flames ended their season wondering "what if?" In his fine season-ending recap of the Liberty season, the News and Advance's Chris Lang pointed out that Liberty was 16-0 when it committed fewer than 20 turnovers in a game; 6-11 with 20 or more.

The natural tendency when seeing turnover numbers like Liberty's is to wonder what's up with the point guard. And granted, Liberty did heap a lot of responsibility on freshman Emily Frazier. But coughing the ball up as much as Liberty did can't be the work of just one player. Turnovers were a team-wide deficiency at Liberty, and everyone needs to apply the attention to detail to curb the problem.

Assuming they can, we're bullish on Liberty's chances of returning to their accustomed spot atop the conference. Avery Warley enjoyed a breakout season, just like Brown did in 2009-10. If Brown can get a clean bill of health and return to that form, Liberty could boast the two best players in the league.

In addition, even in a relative down year Liberty maintained its reputation as beasts of the backboards (No. 2 in Division I in rebounding margin). With 6-4, 6-5 and 6-5 recruits coming in, it's as though Green has taken out another four-year lease on rebounding dominance.

Despite a negative assist-turnover ratio, Frazier showed plenty of promise in her trial-by-fire debut season. With a full campaign under her belt, she figures to play more confidently at the point. And while the loss of Maine, McLeod and Morgan - seniors who were part of a program-record 101 victories - definitely creates a leadership void, Liberty shouldn't have much trouble replacing their on-court production.

In other words, Liberty appears to have everything in place to beat everyone in the Big South and just about anyone on their schedule (assuming they're not headed back to Waco and College Station). That is, if they can learn to stop beating themselves.

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