With his team clinging to three-point lead and less than two minutes remaining Friday, Liberty girls basketball coach Rich Santigate needed someone to step up and take control.
Junior guard Kealy Brown was happy to oblige.
Brown nailed 6 of her 8 free-throw attempts in the game’s final 1:27 to seal the Patriots’ 55-49 victory over Foothill in the championship game of the Sunrise Region tournament.
The win lifted Liberty (25-4) into the Division I state tournament, which begins Thursday in Reno.
“Our coaches prepared us to make free throws in tough situations,” said Brown, who scored 15 of her 19 points in the second half. “You kind of just zone everything out.”
Santigate said he trusted Brown to be his closer.
“We knew (the Falcons) were going to foul,” he said. “So we put the ball in Kealy’s hands. She’s a winning player who can just take over a game.”
Liberty appeared to have control early in the fourth quarter when Paris Strawther hit a layup to give her team a 42-33 lead.
But Taylor Turney, who spent the first half in foul trouble, brought the Falcons (23-7) back with a pair of 3-pointers. Another 3-point shot by teammate Katey Roquemore cut Liberty’s lead to 51-48 with 1:11 to go.
But with time running out, Foothill was forced to foul. Brown was sent to the foul line on all four occasions to keep the Falcons from completing their rally.
The Patriots encountered heavy resistance in the early minutes, as Foothill stormed to a 7-1 lead in the first quarter. But Strawther, who finished with 19 points, 10 rebounds and two steals, hit a layup with 5:22 remaining to ignite a 10-0 Liberty run.
Though Turney committed her third foul with 3:18 left in the second, Mikayla Yeakel nailed a pair of long 2-pointers late in the period to help the Falcons cut their deficit to 26-23 by halftime.
Santigate said his team came ready for Foothill’s perimeter game.
“That’s their game,” he said. “They’re going to shoot 3-pointers and try to get back in it. We just kept pushing them out to make them shoot low-percentage shots.”
Playing conservatively, Turney was held to a single point in the third quarter, and the Patriots built a 38-31 lead.
Santigate said Turney’s troubles were no accident.
“We designed some things to kind of go at her,” he said. “She’s an aggressive player, and we knew that.”
Though Turney hit two of her five 3-pointers in the fourth quarter, the Falcons could not stop Brown, who scored nine points in the quarter.
“This is a special group,” Santigate said. “We knew when we assembled this group that it was something special.”
Jamellia Clark, who left in the third quarter with an ankle injury, helped Liberty with eight points and eight rebounds.
Turney led Foothill with 21 points and six rebounds, and Yeakel finished with 10 points.