25th Anniversary Profile: Liberty Women's Basketball

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – As part of the Big South Conference’s 25th Anniversary celebration in 2008-09, which is presented by Royal Purple, the Conference has been profiling each week the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments in League history.  The weekly feature concludes today with Liberty University’s Women’s Basketball Championship Dynasty from 1997-06.
 
A video vignette of the Lady Flames’ historic run can be viewed on the Big South’s website, www.BigSouthSports.com, under the 25th Anniversary Media Center banner.  In addition, video vignettes around all the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments are available for viewing online on both the League website and the Conference’s YouTube channel at www.YouTube.com/bigsouthsports.

Liberty University joined the Big South Conference in July 1991, a time when Radford University was dominating the League’s women’s basketball landscape.  Led by head coach Rick Reeves, the Lady Flames began their association with a respectable 7-5 Conference record in 1991-92, followed by a 10-6 Big South mark in 1992-93.  That 1992-93 squad also posted a 16-12 overall record, which would be Liberty’s first season above .500 in eight years.  The Lady Flames also reached the Conference Tournament Semifinals both years.

But the momentum stalled, and Liberty did not finish higher than sixth-place in the League standings the next three seasons with exits from the Conference Tournament in the quarterfinal round all three years.  The squad posted back-to-back 20-loss seasons in 1994-95 and 1995-96 and went a combined 7-23 in Big South action those two years.  The 1995-96 season can be considered the low point for the program, as Liberty finished last in the Conference with a 2-12 League mark and a 5-22 overall record.

Despite having nine veterans back in 1996-97, the prognosticators figured Liberty to be much of the same that season, as the Lady Flames were predicted to finish seventh out of the eight Big South teams in the annual preseason poll.  In fact, Liberty had produced just two All-Conference performers since joining the League in 1991-92, so the prediction did not seemed far-fetched.  However, among Coach Reeves’ newcomers in 1996-97 were highly recruited twin guards Sarah and Sharon Wilkerson and the addition of international post players Kirstyn Bliss and Elena Kisseleva.  As a result, the losing days in Lynchburg came to an immediate end.

What took place in 1996-97 was the transformation of women’s basketball at Liberty and in the Big South Conference.  The team recorded the second-biggest turnaround margin in NCAA Division I history with its 22-8 overall record – a 15½ game improvement over 1995-96’s 5-22 mark.  The Lady Flames finished second in the Big South with a 9-5 record to mark the best jump in the Conference standings in Big South Women’s Basketball history.  As the No. 2 seed in the League Tournament, Liberty turned away No. 7 Coastal Carolina in the quarterfinals and defeated No. 6 seed Winthrop in the Semifinals to reach its first Big South Championship game.  It would be a tough task, as No. 1 seed UNC Greensboro waited in the wings after ending Radford’s amazing seven-year title run in the Semifinal round.

But this was a different Liberty team than in the past.  Led by Kisseleva – a First-Team All-Conference pick, the Big South Rookie of the Year and the Conference’s scoring leader, the Lady Flames had home court advantage as the Tournament host, and a record-setting crowd of 2,319 came out to the Vines Center on March 1, 1997 to witness history.  In the Championship game, Liberty trailed by 13 points in the second half.  However, Sharon Wilkerson scored eight-straight points in one stretch, as Liberty knotted the game at 67-67 with 9:42 left.  Senior Michelle Wyms gave Liberty the lead for good with a field goal at 6:57 to make the score 73-71, and senior Genie Stinnett’s three-pointer with 3:13 left gave the Lady Flames a seven-point lead at 79-72 that essentially sealed the win.  Kisseleva and the Wilkerson twins combined for 68 points in the game.  Kisseleva scored 32 points and grabbed 14 rebounds to earn Tournament MVP honors. 

After the emotional and historic victory, the Lady Flames drew national No. 2 Old Dominion in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.  And while Liberty suffered a 102-52 setback in its first-ever NCAA appearance, Kisseleva and Sharon Wilkerson each scored 19 points against the Monarchs.

In 1997-98, the hunter became the hunted, as Liberty was the Big South’s preseason women’s basketball favorite.  When the ball went up for the tip-off of the 1997-98 season, Liberty was ready for a magical season – and a magical one it was.  The Lady Flames went through the first part of their schedule without a blemish, starting to gain the attention of the national poll voters and receiving its first Top 25 votes in school history.

Sharon Wilkerson again provided the squad with momentum, as her last-second game-winning shot at New Orleans in early January thrusted the Lady Flames into Conference play.  Liberty went through the Big South season unscathed at 12-0, becoming just the third team in League history to finish the Conference season undefeated.  Liberty’s “Big Three” of Kisseleva and the Wilkerson sisters again shined throughout the season, as they were selected to the All-Conference and All-Tournament teams for the second consecutive year.  Kisseleva earned her first Big South Player of the Year honor while Reeves was tabbed Coach of the Year.

The top-seeded Lady Flames advanced to their second-straight Big South Tournament Championship game with a 64-54 victory over Charleston Southern in the Semifinals.  Sarah Wilkerson scored 19 points, grabbed seven rebounds, had four assists and came up with three steals in the win over the Lady Buccaneers.  On Feb. 28, 1998, Liberty captured its second Big South Conference Tournament title with a 65-53 win over UNC Asheville.  Kisseleva scored 23 points, including 15 in the second half, and Liberty entered the NCAA Tournament with a 28-0 record.

The pinnacle of the Lady Flames’ poll placement was reached after the Big South Tournament, with the Associated Press ranking them 32nd, and the coaches placing them 39th.  However, the vision of the team gaining a higher seed in the NCAA Tournament was thwarted, as the bracket placed Liberty as the No. 16 seed against the No. 1 team in the country, Tennessee.

Liberty caught the Lady Vols a little flat early in front of an NCAA first round record crowd of 12,577, as the Lady Flames scored first and stayed with top-seeded Tennessee for the first seven minutes of the game.  After tying the game at 12, Liberty could get no closer, as Tennessee’s size and depth carried the Lady Vols on to the victory.  Sharon Wilkerson scored 26 points and tied an NCAA Regional record with six three-pointers in the game.  Despite the early exit, the Liberty women’s basketball program was on the national map.

Thoughts of the previous year’s seeding by the NCAA Tournament committee still loomed in the minds of the Lady Flames as they prepared for the 1998-99 season.  Out to gain the respect they believed they had earned, the schedule strength was upgraded significantly, with more nationally-ranked opponents added to the slate.  Early, unexpected loses had Liberty entering Conference play with a 6-6 overall record.  But one of the six wins was an 80-76, come-from-behind win at Kentucky.  Liberty would go on to win the Big South regular-season for the second-straight year and earn a bye in the Big South quarterfinals.  The Lady Flames disposed of Charleston Southern in the Semifinals, and then against Coastal Carolina in the championship game, used a 17-6 run midway through the contest to pull away for the 68-55 victory -- their third-straight title.  Kisseleva captured Tournament MVP honors, in addition to her Big South Player of the Year selection.

At 21-7 and an upgraded schedule, the Lady Flames were rewarded with a No. 14 seed in the 1999 NCAA Tournament and assigned to play Georgia.  Liberty led through most of its fist half against the Bulldogs and played competitively most of the game.  But Georgia answered with a 13-3 run and maintained a sizable lead midway through the second half to end Liberty’s season.

Reeves departed later that summer for the head coaching job at Southern Mississippi.  Liberty turned over the reigns to longtime Clemson assistant women’s basketball coach Carey Green.  It was Green’s first head coaching position at the Division I level, but he brought something to the Lady Flames program – the experience of winning in the NCAA Tournament.  Green helped guide Clemson to 11 NCAA Tournaments and three “Sweet 16” appearances in his 12 seasons in Death Valley, and he inherited a senior-laden squad looking for the same success.

Green’s first season featured the program’s first win over in-state rival Richmond in 13 attempts, and its first win over an ACC member, as the Lady Flames downed Wake Forest.  Liberty did suffer two Big South losses in 1999-00 – both coming at the hands of Elon, but still captured the regular-season crown with a 12-2 record and going 20-7 overall.  Prior to the start of the Conference Tournament, Liberty made a clean sweep of the Big South’s major awards with Player (Sharon Wilkerson), Rookie (Michelle Fricke) and Coach of the Year (Green).  Liberty defeated High Point and Elon in the Tournament to set up a rematch with Coastal Carolina in the Championship game.

As had happened the season before, Liberty was able to overcome the challenges of the Chanticleers and once again cut down the nets as the seniors completed their quest to win four consecutive Big South championships with a 74-64 triumph.  Kisseleva earned her third Tournament MVP honor in 2000 and capped her career as a four-time First-Team All-Conference selection.

For the second-straight year, Liberty received a No. 14 seed and squared off against No. 3 seed LSU.  Sharon Wilkerson’s three-pointer with 3:05 left in the opening half gave the Lady Flames their first lead in the contest, and Liberty trailed by just one at intermission.  However, the Lady Tigers outscored Liberty 23-8 in the first 10 minutes of the second half to open up a margin the Lady Flames could not overcome.

The 2000-01 season proved to be the most challenging for the Lady Flames in recent years.  After knocking off Big East foe West Virginia to even their record at 2-2, the Lady Flames dropped seven-straight contests, with losses to the likes of Virginia, Iowa State and Wake Forest.  Liberty cruised to four-straight Conference wins before falling at Elon by 18 points – its worst Conference loss in four years.  The Lady Flames continued to fight through adversity and reeled off six-straight Big South wins and later won their final two League games to claim their fourth regular-season crown in succession.

Liberty again mowed through the competition and reached the Big South Championship game for the fifth consecutive year.  The Lady Flames’ opponent was their new Conference nemesis Elon.  After trailing by one point at halftime, Liberty did not give up and claimed a 52-47 win and the League title.  Michelle Fricke was named Tournament MVP after posting a double-double in each of Liberty’s three wins.  The Lady Flames received a No. 15 seed and were given a date with the nation’s No. 4-ranked team in Georgia.  The dreams of an NCAA Tournament win were smashed by the Lady Bulldogs, 77-48.

A trio of newcomers were instrumental during the Lady Flames’ ride to the school’s sixth-straight Big South women’s basketball title in 2001-02.  Freshmen Katie Feenstra, Kristal Tharp and Stephanie Walker set the tone for the program’s future, as all three were named to the Big South’s All-Rookie Team.  Liberty finished 13-1 in Big South play and blew through the Big South Tournament, winning its three games by an average of 20.3 points.  Tharp earned Big South Rookie of the Year honors and was named to the All-Tournament Team with Feenstra.

After suffering its lone League loss to Elon on Jan. 21, the Lady Flames responded by winning their next 10 regular-season games and three-straight in the Big South Tournament en route to the championship.  For the third time in four seasons, Liberty squared off with Coastal Carolina, and the Lady Flames held the Chanticleers to a Finals-record low 33 points.  In the NCAA Tournament, Liberty came closer to winning than ever before.  The Lady Flames were matched up with an SEC opponent for the fifth-straight year in South Carolina.  Walker’s 19 points kept Liberty close, but South Carolina pulled away for a 69-61 win, halting another memorable season.

The 2002-03 season was a record-setting campaign for the Liberty Lady Flames.  Liberty became the first team in Big South women’s basketball history to go 14-0 in the League season.  And for the seventh consecutive year, the Lady Flames headed to the NCAA Tournament after dominating the competition in the Big South during the regular-season and postseason tournament.  Liberty tied Radford’s Big South record of seven-straight tournament titles.

The program recorded its biggest win-to-date, a thrilling 77-69 overtime victory over No. 25 Virginia, marking the first time the Lady Flames had defeated a ranked opponent.  Still, Liberty stood 4-3 after seven games before what happened next.  The Lady Flames reeled off 22-straight victories, giving Liberty the second-longest winning streak in the nation.  Only the eventual national champion Connecticut Huskies boasted a longer streak.  Sophomores Feenstra and Tharp led LU during the 22-game run en route to First-Team All-Conference honors.  Feenstra was voted Big South Player of the Year and Tournament MVP after leading Liberty to its seventh title.  She scored 28 points and had 13 rebounds in the championship game against High Point.

With a 26-3 record, the Lady Flames earned their first-ever national ranking, as they were ranked No. 25 in the USA Today/ESPN/WBCA Coaches Poll on March 11.  Liberty took its national ranking into the NCAA Tournament as the No. 13 seed and faced No. 4-seeded Vanderbilt.  In what proved to be a defensive struggle, the Commodores ended Liberty’s 22-game win streak and hopes of its first-ever NCAA Tournament victory with a 54-44 win.

The 2003-04 Liberty women’s basketball season was one of record proportions.  Vying to join elite company around the nation and set the benchmark for basketball championships in the Big South Conference, the Lady Flames entered the season looking to do what no other team in the Big South had ever done – win eight-straight Conference titles.  And that is exactly what they did, going through League play unscathed for the second-straight season while breaking their own record for consecutive regular-season Big South victories (37).

Feenstra began her junior year in new territory, as she became the first Lady Flame to be named as a Street & Smith’s Preseason Honorable Mention All-American.  During the season, she posted 22 double-doubles and was the only player in the nation to be ranked in the top 15 in field goal percentage (1st, 65.7), points (10th, 21.1), rebounds (10th, 11.0) and blocks (14th, 2.6).  She went on to earn Associated Press Honorable Mention All-American honors.  As a team, Liberty posted a 25-7 record in the regular-season, reeling off 16-straight victories to close out the season as they entered the NCAA Tournament for the eighth-straight time.  The Lady Flames squared off against Georgia for the third time in the last six postseasons, dropping the contest, 78-53.

Liberty’s Big South women’s basketball supremacy reached new heights in 2004-05.  The Lady Flames notched arguably their biggest win in program history that December, as Liberty met Kansas State in the championship game of KSU’s Wildcat Classic.  Kansas State entered the game ranked No. 17 nationally and was riding a 35-game home winning streak.  Feenstra and the rest of the Lady Flames gave a glimpse of what was to come in the postseason, as Liberty handed the Wildcats their worst loss at home since 1998 with a 21-point win, 77-56.  After dropping its next two games to Virginia Tech and No. 3 Duke, Liberty reeled off 16 victories over its next 17 contests.

The lone loss in that stretch was to High Point, which ended Liberty’s 57-game win streak against Conference opponents.  But defeat rejuvenated the Lady Flames, as they ran the table the rest of the season and smashed through the Big South Tournament.  Liberty claimed its ninth consecutive Big South Tournament championship in record fashion, winning all three games by an average of 43.3 points. 

Liberty received a No. 13 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and after facing seven-straight SEC opponents in the Big Dance, the Lady Flames were matched up against No. 4 seed Penn State – a matchup that proved to be favorable.  The Lady Flames outplayed the Lady Lions and earned the Big South’s first NCAA Tournament victory with their 78-70 victory.  Feenstra poured in a game-high 22 points against Penn State to lead the charge, while freshman Allyson Fasnacht scored a season-high 18 points with zero turnovers.  The victory marked just the fourth time a No. 13 seed had knocked off a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Women’s Tournament.

Next up was the No. 5 seed DePaul Blue Demons.  Once again it was Feenstra who did what she had done so many times during her four-year career – dominate the game.  The center proved unstoppable as she scored 29 points on 11-of-14 shooting, while grabbing 13 rebounds, propelling the team to an 88-79 victory and berth in the “Sweet Sixteen”.  Following the win, ESPN’s Jimmy Dykes asked Feenstra why she chose Liberty, and she simply replied, “Why Not Liberty?”  The euphoria that surrounded Feenstra and the Liberty Lady Flames after the DePaul win catapulted the program and the Big South Conference into a new stratosphere, and despite falling to LSU the next week in the Regional Semifinal, the “Sweet Sixteen” berth would be the defining moment of Liberty’s Big South championship run and another feather in the cap in the continuing growth of the Conference’s women’s basketball programs.

With four starters gone and a roster devoid of seniors in 2005-06, the new-look Lady Flames began the quest for their 10th Big South championship.  Displaying the same philosophy Coach Green had instilled in his prior clubs – controlling the boards and playing stifling defense, a new crop of stars featuring Fasnacht and freshman Megan Frazee helped lead the Lady Flames to a 13-1 Conference record and regular-season title. 

Liberty reached the Big South Tournament championship game against No. 2 seed High Point.  The Lady Flames were able to dig out of a 30-21 halftime hole by out-rebounding the Panthers by 18 and limiting HPU to 19 percent shooting in the second half.  The game went down to the wire, with Fasnacht hitting the game-clinching jumper with 14.9 seconds remaining to give Liberty its unprecedented 10th consecutive Big South women’s basketball crown.  In the NCAA Tournament, Liberty was again a No. 13 seed and again faced DePaul, but the Blue Demons ended the Lady Flames’ season with a 68-43 triumph.

Liberty’s championship run would end in the 2007 Big South Tournament Semifinals, as the No. 3 seeded Lady Flames were ousted by No. 2 seed Radford, 57-55.  The loss also ended a record 29-game win streak in the Conference Tournament.  But one must marvel at the 10-year dominance that featured a 121-13 Conference record during the regular-season as well as a 237-68 overall mark during that time.  Coach Green was personally responsible for 166 of those wins (166-52 overall), while posting an astounding 91-7 record during League play.

The Liberty Women’s Basketball Championship run from 1997-06 is one of the Top 25 “Best of the Best” moments in League history.  The Conference is conducting an online fan poll to help determine the Top Moment in the first 25 years of the Big South Conference.  Voting is open on www.BigSouthSports.com and continues through March 25.  Fan voting will be combined with the 25th Anniversary Committee’s votes to come up with the official rank order of the “Best of the Best” moments.  The countdown will be unveiled at the concluding 25th Anniversary banquet in May.

(Most of this profile courtesy of Liberty’s Athletic Communications Office).