Liberty stuns Towson in Big South semifinals

March 06, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

CHARLESTON, S.C. -- Towson State's wild ride came to a crushing end last night at the North Charleston Coliseum.

The top-seeded Tigers ran into a Liberty team that used its frontcourt strength wisely while taking a 13-point lead early in the second half. Then, Liberty hung on as Towson State used its pressing defense staged a stirring comeback attempt.

But the fourth-seeded Flames maintained their poise and caught a critical break in the final seconds to upset the Tigers, 63-58, in the Big South tournament semifinals and advance to their first Big South championship game tomorrow night.

Liberty (17-11) will meet Campbell (20-8), which defeated Radford, 72-61, in the other semifinal last night, and the winner will qualify for the NCAA tournament.

It was a devastating loss for the Tigers (21-9). They lost for only the second time in 15 games and failed for the second straight year to win the Big South tournament as the top seed. Towson State was trying to gain a bid to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1991.

Several images will linger in Towson State's mind about this loss. One is 6-foot-10 center Peter Aluma, a freshman from Nigeria who came off the bench for Liberty and could be headed for tournament MVP honors.

After scoring a career-high 22 points in the quarterfinals against Charleston Southern, Aluma made seven of eight shots to score a team-high 14 points, and grabbed seven rebounds and blocked a game-high five shots.

Aluma's final block is the one the Tigers won't forget. With 10 seconds left and Liberty leading 61-58, Towson State guard Michael Keyes drove the baseline for a short jump shot. Aluma swatted the shot, but appeared to commit a goal-tending violation. No call was made, however, as Aluma dug out the loose ball and passed to teammate Matt Hildebrand, who was fouled immediately.

Hildebrand made both ends of the one-and-one with five seconds left to seal the victory.

"The shot [by Keyes] sure looked like it was on the way down. Had we gotten that call, we would have cut it [the lead] to one," Towson State coach Terry Truax said.

"But all the credit has to go to Liberty. Their game plan and their ability to make key baskets were outstanding. Aluma can score at will. My gosh, he is going to be a great prospect. Our defense was incredible over the last seven minutes. Our kids have a lot of class, and they showed it tonight."

If not for Towson State's defense, especially its quickness in trapping the Flames and pressing them full court, the Tigers might have been routed. Aluma, center Jason Dixon (11 points, 13 rebounds) and forward Darryl Williams (eight points, five rebounds, four assists) exploited Towson State's smaller, lighter front line effectively.

Liberty's 2-3 zone defense also gave the Tigers shooting problems, as Towson made only 21 of 59 shots (35.6 percent).

Those factors, along with the outside shooting of forward Jody Chapman (11 points, 3-for-5 from three-point range) combined to help Liberty turn an 8-2 deficit into a 38-30 halftime lead, then extend its lead to 51-38 with 14:30 left.

But the Tigers, sparked by center John James (12 points, all in the second half) and a defense that forced 21 turnovers and held the Flames to no baskets in the final six minutes, made a 14-2 run at Liberty and almost broke the Flames.

"In the second half, with all of their experience and all of their tradition, Towson just kept coming at us. They turned up the heat," Liberty coach Jeff Meyer said.

But after James made a layup that cut Liberty's lead to 53-52 with 9:12 left, the Tigers failed five times to tie or take the lead. The last attempt came on a difficult scoop shot attempt in traffic by junior guard Scooter Alexander (12 points), who was 5-for-13 shooting, and missed the shot that would have tied the score at 58.

"Some of the shots weren't good shots, but I did get off some good ones that wouldn't fall," Alexander said. "I'm a sore loser. I hate losing."

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