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Well-rounded Fleming beats one-dimensional Liberty in region girls basketball tourney

Tuesday, Mar. 3 | By Jeff Malmgren
Liberty's Sydney Williams had 18 points Monday during a 77-41 loss to William Fleming in the quarterfinals of the Class 4A North Region tournament. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
In many ways, they are mirror images of each other.

But William Fleming looked much better than Liberty on Monday because of an impressive frame.

Standing 6-foot-2 with a broad physique, post player Desiree Keeling made the difference for the Colonels during the quarterfinals of the Class 4A North Region girls basketball tournament. She had 20 points, 13 rebounds, four blocks, four steals and two assists while leading Fleming to a 77-41 victory over Liberty at home in Roanoke.

“They have an amazing post presence,” Eagles coach Ryan Washington said. “You can’t prepare for that.”

With the loss, Liberty’s season ended with a 16-8 record while Fleming improved to 22-4 and advanced to play Charlottesville in the region semifinals Wednesday. Charlottesville won the Conference 23 tournament while Liberty was the Conference 22 runner-up and Fleming was the Conference 24 champion.

“This is the best team we’ve seen,” Eagles junior Ashley Lane said of the Colonels, who have outscored opponents by about 30 points per game this season, including a 99-20 win over Pulaski County in the Conference 24 semifinals and a 78-48 victory over George Washington-Danville in the title game.

Keeling had a lot to do with that dominance. The senior is committed to play next season for Rutgers University.

“She’s a Division I player,” Fleming coach Champ Hubbard said, “and she showcases that day in and day out.”

Fleming and Liberty are similar in that they both have versatile guards who shoot well and create off the dribble, but Keeling gave the Colonels an inside-out aspect to offense that the Eagles lacked. In addition to Keeling’s scoring in the paint, she often passed out of the post to set up perimeter shooters.

“Our main intent is to try and work the ball inside first and see if we can get something started from the middle,” said Hubbard, whose Colonels finished last season as the 4A state runner-up. “That opens everything else up.”

The Colonels began the game with 5-for-8 3-point shooting en route to a 33-13 lead early in the second quarter. They expanded that lead to 42-14 at halftime and 61-23 by the end of the third quarter.

Fleming’s shooters cooled a little, but they finished the game having made 6 of 18 3-pointers.

The Eagles, meanwhile, simply passed the ball around the perimeter on many possessions until someone found enough space to launch the ball. Consequently, Liberty made only 6 of 28 3-point attempts, and that included a 3-for-8 fourth quarter, when Fleming had already sealed the victory.

“Is that what we think a quality shot is?” Washington said.

The Eagles shot that many 3-pointers, in part, because of Keeling’s defensive presence in the paint, along with that of 6-3 teammate Malury Bates and a few other players over 5-10.

“It was intimidating having those big players in there, but we can’t let that get to us,” Lane said. “Our coach told us that 3s weren’t what got us here, but we were still taking them. We just weren’t playing our game.”

The Eagles actually did create plenty of open shots from the perimeter, leaving Hubbard to criticize the close-out defense of the Colonels. Liberty did not make a lot of open shot attempts, though, and Fleming’s defensive rebounds often translated into fastbreak scoring opportunities as the Colonels pushed the ball up court at every opportunity.

“They were just running all over us,” Lane said. “We weren’t getting back on defense. It was really messy on our part.”

“That’s our style of basketball,” Hubbard said. “But we’re intelligent enough to run a solid half-court offense. That’s the misconception, I guess, because the majority of our games go into a fastbreak transition.”

The Colonels functioned well in half-court sets Monday by getting the ball to Keeling in the post. Meanwhile, Liberty’s four post players combined for only one point.

“We need it,” Washington said of developing a better presence in the paint. “I think this outcome would be different. Would it turn into a [win]? I’m not sure, but it would be closer.”

Post play is likely an area the Eagles will need to improve upon next winter if they want to return to the state tournament for the first time since the 2011-12 season, when they finished as the Class AA Division 3 state runner-up after winning the 2010-11 AA D-4 state championship.

Regardless, Liberty made progress this season by advancing to regionals for the first time since 2011-12.

“I am very, very proud of this team,” Washington said. “Me being a first-year coach, and every change I made … they made it easy for me.

“I think the future’s great,” she said. “I won’t be surprised if we [get] further next year.”

Liberty will lose six seniors to graduation, but that group rarely entered the Eagles’ regular playing rotation.

“I’m excited about next year,” Lane said. “We’re going to miss our seniors. They really did help us a lot, but … we have a really bright future ahead of us.”

Washington started five underclassmen this season in juniors Allison Croushorn, Jerrin Garnett and Lane, sophomore Sydney Williams and freshman Makaela Kestner.

Some of that youth showed Monday. Kestner, for example, disappeared at times against Fleming after emerging as a dynamic phenom during the regular season. She had only three points Monday while adding five steals, four rebounds and two assists.

“Being a freshman coming into an atmosphere like this, [she] kind of pumped the breaks,” Washington said. “They were already scared before we hit the court. … Practicing during the week and you could see the nervousness in them.”

Nonetheless, Williams continued her late-season surge as a scorer by providing 18 points, two assists and two steals. Croushorn had 16 rebounds, including 11 on the offensive end, but that translated into only one point. Lane led Liberty with 19 points and added two steals and two assists.

For Fleming, Gracie Doane had 18 points and Cienna Bryant had 11 points while Qwonneshia King had nine rebounds and three assists. Myesha Logan added four assists while Courtney Martin had four steals and T.K. Poindexter had five rebounds.

Following the game, Washington tried to think of a previous Liberty opponent that compared to the Colonels.

On a scale of one to 10, she said, “everybody else we’ve played is probably a three or a four.”

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