Winthrop's Kathi Ryska steals the ball from Liberty's Rachel McLeod.
Winthrop's Kathi Ryska steals the ball from Liberty's Rachel McLeod.

If deputy Barney Fife had been asked to put Winthrop's 56-52 victory over Liberty on Wednesday into words, he would have known exactly what to say.

"BIG!" the bumbling Mayberry deputy would have said. "Really BIG!"

He would have been right. It may have been the biggest in school history.

"There's an unbelievable feeling of accomplishment in our locker room right now," Winthrop coach Bud Childers said. "To play with the best has been our goal from the beginning. They won a tough game tonight. We knew we had to play tough defense and rebound the ball as well as attack inside to win tonight.

"The girls followed the game plan. It was a chess match on the benches as we threw defenses at them and they threw some at us. We're growing up a little bit and it's fun to watch it happen before our eyes."

The Eagles snapped a 25-game losing streak to the Flames, who had an RPI of 30, were ranked 27th in the USA Today/ESPN poll and 29th in The Associated Press rankings that were released earlier in the day. Coach Carey Green's troops were handed their first Big South Conference loss of the year along with the snapping of a 13-game winning streak. Winthrop also kept the Flames from clinching another regular-season title.

More importantly, the win kept alive the Eagles' hopes for the regular-season title. If Winthrop wins its remaining two games and Liberty loses its remaining two, the Eagles will tie the Flames for the championship and the fate of the No. 1 seed will go to the tiebreaker system. Liberty can wrap up the regular-season title on Saturday by beating UNC Asheville, which would leave Winthrop and Radford fighting for second place.

The Eagles and Highlanders play on Saturday. A Radford win would give the Highlanders a season sweep.

Winthrop (19-9, 7-3 Big South) led the Flames, who had a string of 10 straight league championships snapped last season, until Megan Frazee hit a jumper from the right wing for a 52-51 advantage with 1:37 left.

But the Eagles had come too far to turn back this time. Juniors Tiffany Rodd and Yvonne van Daalen made sure of it.

Rodd, who had to be helped from the court after taking an elbow to the nose with 10:22 left, hit a short jumper with just over a minute showing to put the Eagles back on top for good, 53-52.

"We gave up the lead, but we came back on the next play and Tiff makes the big shot to put us back up," Childers said. "That was big."

After missing chances on the offensive end, the Flames fouled van Daalen, a 48 percent free shooter. She made both attempts with 20.3 seconds left and 1-of-2 after Rachel Hammond couldn't connect on what would have been a game-tying 3-pointer with 10 seconds left.

"She was so confident," Childers said. "She wanted to be in that situation and she told me she would make them. She makes three out of four."

The loss left Liberty at 24-3, 9-1. The other losses were to Virginia Tech and North Carolina.

Winthrop scored a big win a year ago in what proved to be a disastrous season by becoming the first eighth seed to knock off the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament. The way junior guard Franchesca Davenport sees it, that win has now slipped to the second-biggest of her career.

"That was a big win, for sure," Davenport said with a big smile. "But this was Liberty. This was the team that had beat us 25 straight times."

And it took a contribution from every Eagle to get it done.

"What a team effort," Childers said. "We had people hurt and people in foul trouble, but we hung in there and showed a lot of grit."

Winthrop's injury woes started in pregame when Jennifer Walker twisted her ankle. That plus foul trouble limited her to 17 minutes. Ashley Haugtvedt, who was a starter when the season began, came in and made a big impact with 10 points and seven rebounds in 18 minutes.

When Ashley Fann got into foul trouble, Shanice Cole came in, scored seven points and pulled down five rebounds in 22 minutes.

"It was great to see (Haugtvedt) step up and have the game she did," Childers said. "She's struggled the last month, but she played strong and gave us a huge lift. Shanice Cole is just beginning to learn what kind of player she's capable of being."

"Our bench really stepped up," Davenport said. "Any of them could be a starter and they were there for us tonight when we needed them."

Winthrop built a 10-point lead in the first half, but Davenport said her team knew they would have to play this one to the final buzzer.

"We knew they would come back and finish strong," said Davenport, who scored 12 points on 5-of-9 shooting. "But we were ready."