LYNCHBURG, Va. – Following a Wednesday loss at Charleston Southern in which Liberty allowed the Bucs to shoot 60.9 percent from the floor and knock down 13 three-pointers, one had to wonder how Ritchie McKay’s squad would bounce back against another tough foe.
The Flames placed four scorers in double-digits and closed the game with a huge defensive stretch, fighting off Gardner-Webb, 77-65, before 3,197 fans at the Vines Center Saturday night.
“I think our team showed some maturity,” said McKay in his remarks to the media. “I knew it [a Gardner-Webb run] was coming. It [Liberty’s lead] just shrunk a bit too much for my liking. Our group was composed, took care of the basketball, and we made some plays when we needed to.”
The Runnin’ Bulldogs trailed 8-4 early, before an 11-0 run gave the visitors a seven-point advantage over the Flames. Liberty (16-11, 7-7 Big South) got an Elijah Cuffee triple to halt the burst, then went on a 9-2 run to tie the contest at 20. The sides struggled to create separation until the final minute, when Ryan Kemrite converted a layup and Scottie James sank a corner trey, giving the Flames a seven-point lead at the interval. Liberty connected on 14 of its 30 first-half tries, holding Gardner-Webb to just 8-of-19 shooting.
The home side’s lead quickly swelled to double figures as the second half commenced, on the strength of another Cuffee three and Kemrite layup. The lead extended as far as 14 after a Caleb Homesley conversion from distance. Then, the run McKay feared came.
A Jaheam Cornwall three cut the lead to 11. A Liam O’Reilly layup made it 9. Patrick Zeck dropped a triple to cut it to six. Another Cornwall three sliced the lead to one possession. Three minutes later, the lead was just one. Gardner-Webb (12-15, 7-7) converted on seven straight possessions and nine of ten during a five-and-a-half-minute stretch of the second half, making what looked like a comfortable victory for the Flames turn into a heart-stopping affair.
Still, despite the challenge, Liberty never panicked. The Flames held serve as their lead became more precarious with each possession, never allowing Gardner-Webb to complete the comeback. On one possession with the Flames ahead by three, three tries from Scottie James near the basket all spun out. The Flames got a stop and a defensive rebound, called a 30-second timeout, then seconds after play resumed, Kemrite buried a three that pushed the Flames’ advantage back to six.
“That’s the name of the game. You’ve gotta make plays when it’s time to make plays, and that’s what we did tonight,” said Kemrite of his shot. “When we come down the stretch against a great team like Gardner-Webb, we just have to be solid, and we’ve gotta make the plays that matter.”
Efianayi sank two free throws that dropped the Liberty lead to four, and Gardner-Webb geared up for a defensive stop that could help it slice the lead back to one possession. Cuffee went to the basket and tried a layup that spun away, but Cabbil hauled in the rebound after a flurry of activity. The board allowed the Flames to reset and eventually put away the contest.
“Huge. I thought [the rebound] was a huge play,” said Gardner-Webb coach Tim Craft. “That was a huge deal. We battle back, we get the game right where we need to get it on the road, and we’ve just gotta get a stop. We get a stop, and we can’t come up with the ball. Huge deal. It could have been a different deal if we grabbed that ball.”
“I think that was a huge possession,” added Cuffee. “It just reenacts what we do every day, just winning plays. We practice that all the time, just making tips and making the extra effort. I thnk that play just kind of defines who we are as a team.”
The Flames’ ability to convert at the line is another thing that defines them as a team. Liberty drained eight attempts from the stripe in the final 50 seconds, putting away the victory for the Flames. Cabbil had four of those free throws.
“I think we were able to put them out of the game just by making free throws,” said Cabbil. “I think we’re one of the best free throw shooting teams in the country, and I think that works to our advantage at the end of games, when teams are fouling us, and we’re able to go down there and make them all.”
Efianayi paced the Runnin’ Bulldogs and all scorers with 19 points, knocking down 5-of-9 from the field and 8-of-10 from the line. O’Reilly added 17, but required 14 shots to reach that total.
“They really probably closed him down tighter. He had a great game against them in round one (a 58-55 Gardner-Webb win in Boiling Springs on December 30), and I really thought he did a good job of trying to get to the paint and get to the foul line and try to create some other things there,” said Craft. “It wasn’t easy for him. It wasn’t an easy night, that’s for sure.”
Cornwall continued his recent hot play, contributing 15 off the bench in 26 minutes of play.
Cuffee set a career high in points, scoring 15 on 5-for-9 (3-for-6 from three) shooting. The first-year West Virginia native also tied his career high for assists, with five. “Elijah Cuffee, that kid’s not a freshman,” said McKay. “He and (forward) Keegan McDowell have done a tremendous job in elevating the prowess of our offense. Those two are not playing like freshmen.” Cuffee tied Kemrite for the team lead in points. James finished one rebound shy of a double-double, scoring 14 and snagging nine boards. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz tallied 13, knocking down three of his four tries from distance.
Both clubs resume conference play Thursday. Gardner-Webb returns home to Paul Porter Arena to face Winthrop. That game is slated for a 7:00 (Eastern) start. Liberty travels to conference leader UNC Asheville. Their tilt at Kimmel Arena is also scheduled to jump at 7:00.
LIBERTY 77, GARDNER-WEBB 65
GARDNER-WEBB (12-15, 7-7 BIG SOUTH): Zeck 1-1 0-0 3, Laster 2-7 0-1 4, Turner 0-1 0-0 0, O’Reilly 4-14 7-7 17, Efianayi 5-9 8-10 19, Cornwall 5-7 0-0 15, Jamison 3-4 1-2 7, Jenkins 0-2 0-0 0, Niangane 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-45 16-20 65.
LIBERTY (16-11, 7-7): Cuffee 5-9 2-2 15, James 5-14 3-4 14, Cabbil 1-8 0-4 4-4 6, Kemrite 5-8 2-2 15, Pacheco-Ortiz 4-7 2-2 13, Baxter-Bell 1-3 0-0 2, Homesley 2-4 0-0 6, Hicks 0-0 0-0 0, Farquhar 0-0 0-0 0, McDowell 2-4 0-0 5, Talbert 0-0 1-2 1. Totals 25-57 14-16 77.
Halftime — Liberty 35-28. 3-Point Goals—Gardner-Webb 8-22 (Zeck 1-1, Laster 0-1, Turner 0-1, O’Reilly 2-7, Efianayi 1-3, Cornwall 5-7, Jenkins 0-2), Liberty 13-28 (Cuffee 3-6, James 1-3, Cabbil 0-4, Kemrite 3-5, Pacheco-Ortiz 3-4, Homesley 2-3, McDowell 1-3). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds —Liberty 34 (James/Cabbil 9), Gardner-Webb 26 (O’Reilly/Jamison 6). Assists —Liberty 17 (Cabbil 7), Gardner-Webb 9 (O’Reilly 4). Total Fouls — Liberty 17, Gardner-Webb 16. Technical — NA. A — 3197.
Points in the Paint —Liberty 24, Gardner-Webb 22. Points off Turnovers —Liberty 15, Gardner-Webb 12. Second-Chance Points — Gardner-Webb 7, Liberty 6. Fast Break Points — Gardner-Webb 0, Liberty 0. Bench Points — Gardner-Webb 22, Liberty 14.