Liberty coach Carey Green has joked that the two most important words for his Lady Flames are "rebound" and "Jesus."
Yet the nation's best team in rebound margin found themselves outworked Sunday on the boards with nothing helping as Liberty lost 77-43 to fourth-seeded Purdue in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
"They came out physical," Liberty senior Tolu Omotola said of Purdue. "They just won most of the battles inside. We came out, we were only one deep so it was a lot on us. So we just came out physical and just didn't win the battle, some of the battles down inside."
Liberty, the university founded by the late Jerry Falwell, prides itself on hitting the boards under coach Carey Green. The Lady Flames outrebounded opponents by a difference of 17.5 per game this season. However, the Boilermakers finished with a 40-38 advantage, led by Sam Ostarello's 17 boards. Liberty finished with 10 fewer rebounds than their season average of 48.
The 13th-seeded Lady Flames were without junior Jasmine Gardner, a 6-foot-2 post player averaging 7.3 rebounds per game. She injured her knee after the Big South Conference tournament and will be having surgery soon. That affected the Lady Flames' usual rotation.
"Usually, I know she has my weak side if I'm not here, so it did throw us off a little bit," Omotola said.
Courtney Moses paced Purdue (25-8) with 21 points, shooting 5 for 8 on 3-pointers. KK Houser scored 15 points and Ostarello added 10.
Senior Devon Brown scored 21 points to lead Liberty (27-7), which snapped a 14-game winning streak. Ashley Rininger grabbed 13 rebounds.
"We just did not play as well as we could have and we lost to a very good Purdue team that played up to their potential," Green said. "It's unfortunate, but very proud of this group and reaching this level. And we'd like to have went farther. That was our goal. ... Poor shooting percentage is pretty simple. They doubled our shooting percentage."
Liberty started cold, with Purdue's pesky defense forcing the Lady Flames to their season-worst 26.3-percent (15 of 57) shooting performance. In contrast, Purdue shot 26 of 52 (50 percent). Liberty had held 28 straight opponents below 50 percent shooting FG since Baylor shot 55.2 percent on Nov. 23.
Purdue led 33-17 at halftime and was up by 35 late in the game as the Boilermakers won their fifth straight overall. They had this game so in control that 12 Boilermakers played with nine seeing at least nine minutes. Purdue's reserves outscored Liberty 28-8.
"Before you can run, you have to first rebound, so Sam's rebounds were key," Moses said. "She was getting it out, kicking it and when we run, we have fun."
Green said he thinks nerves played into the shooting, pointing out one post shot that hit the bottom of the backboard with another a 2-foot airball.
"That was nervousness or not really positioning yourself offensively to take good shots so we were taking those poor shots, which will in turn give them opportunities to get a defensive rebound and run out," Green said. "That's exactly what happened."
Liberty's size advantage with four players 6-foot-2 or taller just didn't matter against the faster Boilermakers, who pushed the tempo from the opening tip.
The Lady Flames led only once at 10-9 on a 3-pointer by Reagan Miller. Houser answered with a three-point play with 14:51 left, putting Purdue ahead to stay, the first of 11 straight points to push the Boilermakers' lead to double digits. Moses hit her fourth 3 of the first half, and April Wilson added a 3 in the final seconds to give Purdue a 33-17 halftime lead.
In the second half Liberty scored six straight points, the last on a jumper by Brown, to pull to 42-27 with 15:08 left. That was as close as the Lady Flames would get as Ostarello scored to start a 13-2 run to stretch the lead even more.