College basketball: Kierstan Bell powers FGCU women to tight win against Liberty

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The FGCU women's basketball team was on the ropes.

The No. 23 Eagles were down 14 to Liberty in the third quarter. But there were no heads hanging. No fingers pointing, except maybe at themselves.

FGCU star Kierstan Bell had just five points at that point. And then she had seven points in less than a minute. And then more. And more.

The Eagles battled all the way back and had enough left to pull out a 73-69 victory over the Flames at Alico Arena on Saturday night.

"Obviously this was a very tough game," FGCU coach Karl Smesko said. "We played a great team. They're an exceptional team this year and they're physical and they gave us everything that we could have ever asked for.

"We had to make a decision whether we were going to try to make a game of it. Fortunately, we were able to make a run right at the end of the third quarter and it got everybody motivated to try and pull this thing out in the fourth."

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FGCU (15-1, 4-0 ASUN) came in 8-0 against Liberty (15-2, 3-1), and it looked like the Flames were going to make sure that eight was enough. Two of those were in ASUN Tournament title games, including last season.

The Flames were deep and physical, the Eagles missed a bunch of free throws, and each team took turns making significant runs in the first three quarters.

Liberty's Dee Brown scored with 6:05 left to finish off a 16-2 run that overlapped the second and third quarters for a 49-35 lead. The Eagles whittled it to 10, the Flames extended it back to 55-41 with 3:15 to go in the third.

"I have a lot of confidence in our team," Smesko said. "I didn't think we were playing FGCU basketball for a while."

FGCU women's basketball took on one-loss Liberty in a key ASUN game. FGCU won this hard fought game.
FGCU women's basketball took on one-loss Liberty in a key ASUN game. FGCU won this hard fought game.

Bell, the nation's fourth-leading scorer, erupted after that. She drained a three, made a tough layup, and Karli Seay scored and was fouled after a turnover. She missed the free throw, but Bell was there for the putback, and suddenly it was 55-50.

"I thought Bell got us going," Smesko said. "She started getting some straight-line drives to the rim, and absorbing the contact and getting some finishes there, and hitting some big 3s for us."

Flames star Mya Berkman committed an offensive foul, and Bell made two more free throws.

Liberty wasn't done though, scoring five straight to go up 64-57. Seay answered with another and-one and again missed the free throw, but the Eagles got a defensive stop and Kendall Spray drained a 3-pointer. After another Liberty turnover, Bell answered with a driving layup to tie it 64-64 with 5:13 left.

Bell's 3 with 2:54 left gave the Eagles their first lead since the first quarter, 67-65, with 2:54 left, but Liberty's Kennedi Williams tied it with a layup.

"The third and fourth quarter we didn't execute and slow things down like we wanted to," Liberty coach Carey Green said. "I think our offense became stagnant a little bit at that point in time and opened the door.

"They played good in the third and fourth quarter. The game's pretty simple. You've got execute and we didn't execute. Their big quarter was the fourth quarter, 21 points, that was our worst quarter -- not a good combination. We've got to finish stronger and defend better."

The Flames wouldn't score again until 10 seconds were left, but FGCU only had made 4 of 6 free throws, with Emma List draining two with 16 seconds left. Williams' bucket made it 71-69. Tyra Cox made two free throws with 8 seconds left to seal it.

"What I liked is everybody who was out there made a play down the stretch for us," Smesko said. "Everybody out there, and we needed every one of them. The fact that nobody was hanging their heads when we were down, and everybody was committed to contributing made a big difference today.

"We feel really fortunate to beat a really good team."

T.K. Morehouse had nine of her 11 points in the first half to keep the Eagles in it. Spray made 3 of 6 3-pointers, and Bell was 4 of 11.

"I was happy with my team for not hanging our head down," Bell said.

Brown had 15 and so did Priscilla Smeenge off the bench. Berkman was held to 10. Bridgette Rettstatt had 11 points and 11 rebounds.

FGCU plays at Stetson on Wednesday at 7 p.m.

FGCU women's basketball took on one-loss Liberty in a key ASUN game. FGCU won this hard fought game.
FGCU women's basketball took on one-loss Liberty in a key ASUN game. FGCU won this hard fought game.

3 Things To Know

1. Let the music play? Music was still playing over the speaker system following Liberty's timeout with 20 seconds left and the Flames down two, after the ball was handed to the Flames to inbound it. Whether that led to confusion on their part or not isn't clear, but they could not get the ball in and turned it over on a 5-second call.

"That was huge," Smesko said. "Bell was on the ball and making it tough to see, and everybody was denying the ball inside.

"That definitely was a big play in the game."

When Green was asked about the play and if the music playing had an effect, he paused for a few seconds.

"I don't know if I can say anything," he said. "We'll watch it. If we think there's something there, the officials, the supervisor will see it. Guess what? We turn it in, and the game doesn't get changed."

2. Bell tolls again. Yeah, it's an old one, but the junior simply picked up her teammates and carried them. Sure, everyone else on the floor contributed significant plays in the comeback and down the stretch, but Bell was 7 of 13 in the second half with three 3-pointers after going just 2 of 7 in the first half for those five points.

She finished with 25 points, seven rebounds and three steals, with 20 of those points coming in the last 12:09.

"Sometimes I get down on myself, but they pick me up," she said of her teammates. "They tell me that I'm great. "

Bell looked for her shots while the Eagles were struggling, but didn't try to overdo it.

"A lot of times it's just trying not to force it, just playing the best basketball that we can play," she said. "If I'm not open, just dish it out to my teammate and trust that they'll make the shot."

3. Defense leads comeback. Smesko had said after the Eagles' win against UNF that their defense needed to be more consistent, especially when their own shots were not falling. That was another difference in this one. They were more consistent, and forced 10 second-half turnovers and more rushed shots, all keys to the comeback.

Greg Hardwig is a sports reporter for the Naples Daily News and The News-Press. Follow him on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter: @NDN_Ghardwig, email him at ghardwig@naplesnews.com. Support local journalism with this special subscription offer at https://cm.naplesnews.com/specialoffer/

This article originally appeared on Naples Daily News: 3 Things To Know from FGCU women's basketball's win against Liberty

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