ASHEVILLE, N.C. – As his team prepared for the Big South tournament, Liberty coach Ritchie McKay knew his Flames faced a series of challenges. After Friday night, one might wonder if they actually prefer it that way.
McKay mentioned the challenge of facing Campbell’s Chris Clemons in the quarterfinals, after the Camels defeated the Flames twice during the season. He then mentioned having to defeat regular-season champion UNC Asheville on its floor in the Kimmel Arena for the second time in just over two weeks. As if that second challenge weren’t enough, McKay’s club found itself down 12 to the Bulldogs at the half.
Yet, almost improbably, Liberty finds itself playing for a Big South title for the first time since its miraculous 2013 championship run.
Scottie James registered a double-double, while Liberty held Asheville to just 25 percent shooting in the second half, pulling out a 69-64 victory in Big South semifinal action before an announced crowd of 2,318.
“I thought they executed, particularly in the second half, on both ends of the floor,” said Asheville coach Nick McDevitt. “They never seemed rattled, and they came in here and won the game.”
Asheville (21-12) dictated the tempo for much of the opening stanza, with an early 10-0 run putting the Bulldogs ahead by six, then a 9-0 burst later in the half to swat away the Flames’ attempt to get back in the game. That second run extended the Bulldogs’ lead to 13 before the final break of the first half, eliciting a boisterous conversation between Liberty’s leader and his team.
“We knew we had to put more effort into finishing the play, and we started doing that towards the end of the half and into the second,” said James of the conversation and its result.
Liberty (20-13) worked the margin down to six shortly after that break, but Asheville doubled its lead before the interval. A Raekwon Miller trey just out of the break gave the Bulldogs their largest lead of the night at 15.
The comeback seemed more of a drip than a flood as it began to unfold. Slowly, the lead trickled away, from ten, to six, and eventually to three a couple of times.
Then, the dam broke.
Liberty punctuated its dominant second half by unleashing a 15-0 spurt, with a play early in the run epitomizing the second-half action.
With the Flames’ lead just one after James knocked down two free throws a minute earlier, a Lovell Cabbil three missed the mark. James then soared above two Bulldogs, snatched the rebound, and scored a put-back basket that drew a celebration from the Liberty bench and shocked the blue-clad home faithful into near-silence.
“That was huge for us,” said Cabbil. “I felt like that just pushed us over the edge to want to get a stop on the next possession. Him with that offensive rebound, I think that kind of gave us a lot of momentum going to the next play.”
“That was a big one,” added McDevitt. “I think you’ve gotta tip your hat on a couple of those to Scottie James. He’s a horse. He’s good … He’s really good, he’s really physical, plays hard, he’s athletic, he’s strong, he’s just a load.”
Asheville knocked down two threes in the final 30 seconds, one-third of its second-half conversions. While voicing concern for his team’s lack of ball and player movement on offense, McDevitt also credited Liberty’s defensive adherence.
“I think another key stat was the fact that we had zero fast-break points,” said McDevitt. “By sending only one guy, Scottie James, to the offensive glass a lot, most of the time, the other four are getting back in defensive transition. You could tell they were really keyed-in on trying to not let us get loose in offensive transition, and that hurt us.”
“We just try and make you beat us with one contested jump shot,” said McKay. “I felt like we were doing a better job of that in the second half, especially on our defensive glass, because Asheville had their way with us in the first half.”
Asheville guards Raekwon Miller and MaCio Teague recorded 19 points apiece, including the two tries from beyond the arc that pulled the Bulldogs within striking distance. Ahmad Thomas added 11 for the Bulldogs. By virtue of its regular-season crown, Asheville has earned the Big South’s bid to the NIT. Its opponent will be announced next Sunday night.
James’ double-double was his ninth of the year for Liberty, as he notched 18 points and 14 rebounds. Cabbil added 14 points on 4-for-8 shooting, finishing one rebound shy of his own double-double.
The Big South championship game will take place in Radford’s Dedmon Center Sunday at 1:00 (Eastern), with the fifth-seeded Flames facing the second-seeded Highlanders. Liberty and Radford faced off twice during the regular season, with Radford winning both. The Highlanders claimed a 59-57, overtime victory in Radford in January, with the second a 63-50 result in Lynchburg just over a week ago. The teams have never faced off in the Big South championship game. Sunday’s contest will be broadcast on ESPN.
LIBERTY 69, UNC ASHEVILLE 64
LIBERTY (20-13): Kemrite 2-8 2-3 7, Cuffee 3-3 0-0 7, James 7-9 4-5 18, Cabbil 4-8 5-5 14, Pacheco-Ortiz 1-7 4-4 7, Baxter-Bell 1-3 6-8 8, Homesley 3-6 0-0 8, Williams 0-0 0-0 0, McDowell 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-44 21-25 69.
UNC ASHEVILLE (21-12): Baehre 0-3 2-2 2, Vannatta 0-4 2-2 2, Miller 6-11 2-4 19, Thomas 5-17 1-4 11, Teague 4-11 8-9 19, Gilmore 1-3 2-2 4, Wnuk 0-1 0-0 0, Rackley 2-2 2-3 7. Totals 18-52 19-26 64.
Halftime — Asheville 38, Liberty 26. 3-Point Goals—Liberty 6-18 (Kemrite 1-4, Cuffee 1-1, James 0-1, Cabbil 1-3, Pacheco-Ortiz 1-5, Homesley 2-4), Asheville 9-21 (Baehre 0-1, Vannatta 0-1, Miller 5-7, Thomas 0-3, Teague 3-8, Rackley 1-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Liberty 37 (James 14), Asheville 28 (Teague/Gilmore 4). Assists —Liberty 10 (Cabbil 3), Asheville 9 (Vannatta 4). Total Fouls — Liberty 23, Asheville 20. Technical — None. A — 2,318 (3,200).
Points in the Paint —Liberty 28, Asheville 14. Points off Turnovers —Asheville 18, Liberty 4. Second-Chance Points — Liberty 11, Asheville 10. Fast Break Points — Liberty 0, Asheville 0. Bench Points — Liberty 16, Asheville 11.
Big South Tournament Schedule
Quarterfinals – Thursday, March 1 – ESPN3
Game 3: #2 Radford 59, #10 Longwood 53
Game 4: #3 Winthrop 72, #6 Gardner-Webb 68
Game 5: #1 UNC Asheville 71, #8 Charleston Southern 66
Game 6: #5 Liberty 73, #4 Campbell 59
Semifinals – Friday, March 2 – ESPN3
Game 7: Semifinals – Radford 61, Winthrop 52
Game 8: Semifinals – Liberty 69, UNC Asheville 64
Championship – Sunday, March 4 – ESPN
Game 9: Championship – Radford vs. Liberty, 1:00pm