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Liberty girls force overtime again in season finale, but fall to Courtland for third time

Wednesday, Feb. 19 | By Jeff Malmgren

India Turner scored 13 points Wednesday, but her Liberty Eagles lost to Courtland, 55-46, during the semifinals of the Conference 22 tournament. --Fauquier Times Staff Photo/Randy Litzinger
The polarity of Courtland’s gym seemed to change Wednesday for eight brief minutes.

That was almost enough time for the Liberty Eagles to win their semifinal game during the Conference 22 girls basketball tournament.

Almost.

Ultimately, though, Liberty lost to the Courtland Cougars, 55-46, in overtime on the road in Spotsylvania.

The Eagles appeared drawn to the basket offensively in the fourth quarter. They sprinted up court toward the hoop in transition and penetrated Courtland’s defense to get near the rim while running half-court sets.

During the rest of the game, however, the basket seemed to repel Liberty. The Eagles consistently drifted toward half court against the Cougars’ pressure defense, and they failed to produce many fastbreak opportunities.

So, while the Eagles managed to rally from a 36-29 deficit during the fourth quarter to tie the game, 43-43, and force overtime, Courtland still ended Liberty’s season one win short of qualifying for the Class 4A North Region tournament.

The Cougars, seeded No. 2 in the conference tournament, instead clinched the region bid and improved their record to 12-8. They also advanced to play in the conference final Friday against Chancellor, which beat King George, 65-40, in a semifinal Wednesday.

Liberty, meanwhile, finished with a 15-6 record after winning the Evergreen District championship by going undefeated and entering the Conference 22 tournament as the No. 3 seed.

“We’ve come a long way from last year when we had little, if any, varsity experience,” Eagles coach Ashton Girolmo said of a Liberty team that went 9-14 last season, its worst record in more than nine years. “The kids have worked just so hard in the offseason. … They all want to get better.”

Liberty went 6-4 in Conference 22 play during the regular season with their only losses to champion Chancellor and runner-up Courtland. In fact, the Eagles came tantalizingly close to beating Courtland in all three meetings – twice during the regular season and again in the playoffs.

“It’s been three great games,” Courtland coach Laura Gast said. “They played tough. It could have easily gone either way.”

The Cougars defeated Liberty, 44-36, on Dec. 13 and, 54-47, in overtime Feb. 3. Of course, it took overtime again Wednesday.

“Every time we’ve played Courtland it’s been right there,” Eagles senior India Turner said of having victory within reach.

“It’s very, very frustrating,” Girolmo said. “In the fourth quarter, we did make a run. We thought we could get it right there at the end."

The Cougars led, 34-29, at the end of the third quarter. Then, 20 seconds into the fourth, they increased their lead to seven points, but Turner, senior Lizzy Berger and sophomore Ashley Lane sparked an Eagles’ rally.

First, Berger grabbed an offensive rebound and made a put-back. Then Lane assisted Turner on a jump shot. Lane also added a runner for two points before driving and passing to Berger for a layup. Turner then made a dribble jumper followed by a set jump shot, with a hand in her face, on an out-of-bounds play.

Those baskets translated into a 12-6 run, and then Keyanna Gibson tied the game, 43-43, on a short jump shot off an assist by Lane with 1 minute, 45 seconds remaining in the fourth.

“We just knew we had to buckle down and claw our way back like we have in games before,” Berger said of the fourth quarter.

The Eagles' personality changed in that period as they drove to the basket aggressively and forced six Courtland turnovers. Lane facilitated the rally with four of her game-high six steals, which gave Liberty opportunities to score in transition.

“Quick, easy baskets,” Turner said. “In transition you can kind of control the flow.”

“It creates so much for us because it forces the defense into a scramble,” Girolmo said. “The girls did a good job of making the most of their possessions there in the fourth.”

With less than five seconds remaining in the fourth, Courtland missed a jump shot and had the ensuring offensive rebound stripped away as the buzzer sounded. Liberty had all the momentum.

That ended with the overtime jump ball.

The Cougars won the first possession of overtime and took a 46-43 lead with a three-point play by Kiara Williams. Liberty, meanwhile, reverted to its passive play and scored only three points during the entire four-minute period.

“They did a good job of pressuring us defensively, especially our ball handlers,” Girolmo said of a Cougars team that, throughout the game, often trapped Liberty’s ball handlers in both a man-to-man and 2-3 zone defense.

The Eagles were at their best when attacking off the dribble, but they did that rarely outside of the fourth quarter.

They did lead, 10-6, at the end of the first quarter and, 23-19, at halftime, but most of their field goals came on perimeter jump shots against Courtland’s zone. The Eagles seemed to pass the ball to simply get it out of their hands rather than to advance the offense.

“It puzzles me,” Girolmo said. “But Courtland does a good job of stepping out on our guards and getting in their face and making them really make decisions with the ball.”

Liberty finished with 24 turnovers to Courtland’s 20.

The Eagles’ 6-foot-5 center, Kiana Smith, had a typically dominant game defensively. Regardless, Courtland’s Melody Buckley had a productive game in the paint – a rarity this season for post players facing Liberty.

Despite a height disadvantage, Buckley finished with a game-high 19 points by using her body well to get good positioning. She also had five rebounds and five steals.

“She did have some good moves,” Berger said of a Courtland senior who often utilized an up-and-under fake to score.

“We played poor defense on her,” Girolmo said. “We were going to front her in the post and for some reason we were content with standing behind.”

Nonetheless, other Cougars struggled to score in the paint as Smith accumulated a game-high nine blocks.

“You have to change what you do around her because she’s going to block shots,” Gast said.

Smith also had 21 rebounds (13 offensive) to help the Eagles out-rebound Courtland, 47-37. Williams had 10 rebounds and 10 points for the Cougars, while Kayla Demps had 17 points, five steals and four assists.

For Liberty, Turner had 13 points and four rebounds, while Lane had six points, five assists and four rebounds. Gibson had eight points, five assists and four rebounds, while Berger added nine rebounds, 11 points and four assists.

That performance was a continuation of Berger’s strong play against Fauquier in the conference quarterfinals, during which she scored a career-high 15 points.

“I definitely feel like I grew as a player” recently, Berger said.

She scored a lot of her points Wednesday by attacking the basket or shooting jump shots along the baseline against Courtland’s zone.

“Those baseline cuts, she’s really smart at timing,” Turner said. “She’s getting stronger in the post.”

Unfortunately for Berger, her high school career ended Wednesday along with five other Liberty seniors.

“We had a lot of good memories this year,” Berger said. “It’s emotional.”

A few of those seniors were the last to leave the visitor’s locker room at Courtland, their eyes red from rubbing away tears.

“It’s been a great year,” Turner said. “We’ve been better than anyone expected us to be. I’m really proud of my team.

“I don’t think our parents even thought we’d be this good,” she said.

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