Gardner-Webb exorcises demons, finally gets past Liberty for NCAA trip

HIGH POINT, N.C. -- Rick Reeves helped build a Big South dynasty at Liberty. On his third try in his new job, he finally knocked the Lady Flames from their perch.

Behind 23 points from Monique Hudson and 16 points and six assists from her twin sister, Dominique Hudson, Gardner-Webb made the big plays down the stretch after two years of heartache to hold off Liberty 67-66 Sunday and secure the school's first NCAA tournament appearance.

Reeves, who guided Liberty to the first three of 13 titles in 14 years, became the first coach to lead two schools to Big South crowns.

"My little granddaughter said it was our turn because we won the close game," Reeves said, smiling.

After missing potential tying and winning shots at the buzzer in the previous two years against Liberty in the final, third-seeded Gardner-Webb (23-10) built an 11-point lead then hung on in a frantic finish on an emotional day.

"Before the game I was thinking, this is my last game, this is our last chance. I was about to cry before the game," said senior Monique Hudson, who missed a tying runner at the buzzer last season.

Her sister, whose game-winning shot failed to fall two years ago, was confident they'd end the Liberty hex.

"I envisioned this and it happened," she said. "I had the [championship] shirt on, the hat. It feels good."

Jelena Antic scored 19 points, Avery Warley added 13 points and 16 rebounds and Devon Brown had 13 points but also eight turnovers for the top-seeded Flames (22-10), who had beaten Gardner-Webb twice in the regular season and were 38-0 in this event when playing as the higher seed.

Coach Carey Green, who replaced Reeves in 1999, fell to 32-2 in the Big South tournament as the Lady Flames head to the WNIT.

"It's one of those things we don't plan for. It's sort of like a person that walks the tightrope, he doesn't practice falling off the tightrope," Green said. "It's reality. We'll have to go through this experience."

The final minute had just about everything, from clutch shots to a big missed free throw and a questionable decision.

After seeing its big lead from early in the second half evaporate, LaTroya Pope's floater in the lane with 30 seconds put Gardner-Webb up 67-64.

Then with Liberty facing a trapping defense, Brown's pass across the floor landed out of bounds at midcourt with 14.1 seconds left. But Gardner-Webb's Brianna Dillard's missed the front end of a 1-and-1 to give Liberty an opening.

Antic then decided to take it to the basket for a layup with 3.4 seconds left instead of attempting a tying 3-pointer.

"I knew we needed a 3 but I didn't see anybody open," Antic said. "So I thought we could go in for a layup and foul quickly. But we didn't find a man to foul."

The long inbounds pass went to Monique Hudson and she outran Liberty's attempts to foul as the clock expired and Gardner-Webb's players piled on each other under the basket.

Brown, who hit the game-winning shot in last year's title game, slumped her shoulders and was consoled at midcourt.

"I'm really proud of my team for coming back," Antic said. "It's hard to lose but I'm proud. We fought really hard."

Reeves is credited with creating Liberty's league dominance when he led the Flames to three straight titles from 1997-99. Reeves then left for Southern Mississippi, where he lasted five seasons with a losing record before landing at Gardner-Webb.

The Boiling Springs, N.C., school was then early in its transition to Division I. It moved from the Atlantic Sun to the Big South in the 2008-09 season and has been in every title game since.

Finally, the Bulldogs got to celebrate.

"We all wanted it so bad," Monique Hudson said. "We deserve it."