Winthrop women's basketball will play in the Big South Conference tournament championship Sunday, after a 65-59 win over Liberty Saturday night.
Liberty’s women’s basketball program seemingly enters every Big South gym to the Imperial Death March, Darth Vader’s theme music from Star Wars. The Flames have long run the show in league play, especially in March, and had beaten the Eagles in five straight Big South tournament games. But Kevin Cook’s team shook off a poor shooting start to pull away from Liberty late, and advanced to its first Big South title game since 1996.
“This game was about our players,” said Cook. “I’m very, very proud of their effort and they followed the game plan to a T. We’ll be ready and we’ll show up tomorrow night.”
The Eagles will face High Point in the women’s final Sunday at 5 p.msix. The semifinal win also clinched at least an NIT berth, but Winthrop can worry about that on Monday. Whoever wins Sunday’s final will be a first-time NCAA tournament team.
“It’s a one-game series,” said Cook. “You’ve got to win one game.”
Winthrop held big leads in both regular season losses against Liberty, but they held their nerve Saturday night, coolly hitting six foul shots in the last minute.
“We’ve been through it twice,” said Cook. “They showed great composure and poise. We made real, real, real big free throws, and plays under pressure.”
“It cost a little more now, so we knew we had to separate from the team,” said Winthrop senior Dequesha McClanahan.
Freshman Erica Williams scored 14 points and pulled in 10 boards, while McClanahan led the Eagles with 15 points. Fellow senior Tiffany Charles added 12 off the bench in an energetic and defensive-minded effort. The Eagles forced 15 Liberty turnovers, and created 11 steals.
Every foul drawn, every bucket in transition, every 3 from the corner was cheered by the Eagles like it was a game-winner. No roar was greater or more primal than Williams’ after she forced a shot up and in, while drawing a foul. The free throw gave Winthrop a 58-49 lead with 4 minutes, 10 seconds left in the game.
The Flames kept pushing, Ashley Rininger scoring inside before Jaymee Fisher-Davis rainbowed in a 3 from the corner to cut the lead to 58-54 with 2 minutes, 53 seconds to go. But McClanahan and Charles combined to hit six free throws in the last 60 seconds to clinch a program-changing win.
“It feels good,” McClanahan admitted, “but we can’t stop here.”
Bret McCormick • 803-329-4032; Twitter: @BretJust1T