RADFORD, Va. – Radford’s Carlik Jones had time to reflect after hitting one of the biggest shots of his life. In retrospect, he wasn’t completely sure whether it would fall – at first, anyway.
“I shot it, and [was] like, alright. Then I looked at it after a while, and I was like, that’s good,” said Jones.
“It looked good to me,” quipped his coach, Mike Jones.
Jones’ shot from beyond the left arc splashed home just before the horn sounded, giving Radford a 55-52 victory over Liberty and its first Big South title since 2009 before a raucous, sold-out crowd at the Dedmon Center.
Radford players and fans raced onto the floor, dodging Liberty players whose hands rose to their heads in seemingly simultaneous incredulity. The Highlanders’ celebration was delayed a bit while the play was reviewed, but the respite did little to squash the excitement.
“It’s one of the greatest feelings ever,’ said Jones. “To be able to knock down that shot, and now we’re able to go to the NCAA tournament, it’s just an unbelievable feeling.”
The regional rivals put forth a championship game similar to their two prior meetings this season, a physical slugfest that saw both sides struggle to create separation. The first half was a back-and-forth effort in which neither side gained an advantage larger than six points. Radford (22-12) used stellar post play from Devonnte Holland to gain an 18-8 advantage on points in the paint in the period, taking a 26-21 lead to the interval. Holland posted 11 points in the period.
“I just told him, these guys can’t guard you,” said Mike Jones after the game about Holland’s play. “I believe in that dude, man. I really believe in his ability to score the ball. He came out and was lights-out to start that game.”
“Holland played really well in the first half,” said Liberty’s Scottie James. “He got a couple buckets off rolls and a couple buckets off post-ups. Obviously, Randy (Phillips), he’s another guy that’s a physical player. It was a physical game all game.”
Radford tried multiple times to pull away from its Commonwealth combatant, but found itself unable to do so. After back-to-back triples from Lovell Cabbil and James, a seven-point Highlander lead shriveled to just a single point. Another Highlander run stretched the lead back to nine, as back-to-back threes from Travis Fields Jr. threatened to put away the Flames.
Liberty (20-14) again rose from the mat, just as it had two days prior against UNC Asheville in the semifinals. Myo Baxter-Bell knocked down two free throws to finally give Liberty the lead at 43-42 with 7:41 remaining, its first since the 12:15 mark of the first half. Radford reeled off six free throws of its own to again wrest control of the scoreboard, but James took control of the game during that segment and kept the Flames alive. The redshirt sophomore scored seven straight points for Liberty, the last of which came from the line, again giving his side the advantage at 50-48.
With the game level at 52 with 50 seconds remaining, Liberty forced a turnover and set itself up for a possible game-winning possession. With time draining from the shot clock, Cabbil took a shot from the right side of the perimeter that hit the back iron, then bounced into the air and away from the basket.
“[Jones’ game winner was] no different than what Lovell did the possession before. His was a deep three, only it didn’t go in,” said McKay. “If Lovell makes that, I might be the second coach that comes up here [to talk to the media], instead of the first.”
During a Radford timeout it called to set up the final play, Mike Jones drew up a double screen that almost went awry before it ever unfolded. “We got out there, and it seemed like one of the players had forgotten the play already,” said Carlik Jones. “I was trying to tell him to come up, but by the time that happened, there was about three seconds left.” Cabbil eluded the two screens and closed out on Jones with a high hand, only for the attempt to find the net.
“Carlik hit a tough shot. He’s a really good player, so I’ve got to tip my hat off to him for that,” said Cabbil. “I thought I got a decent contest. He just made a big shot.”
“I had to let it go. I’m just thankful that the shot fell,” said Jones.
James recorded his tenth double-double for the Flames, pouring in 20 points and snatching 13 boards. He also blocked three shots in 33 minutes of play. Lovell Cabbil added 15 points on 5-for-9 shooting, dishing out seven assists and hauling in three boards.
Jones led four Highlanders in double figures, with his buzzer-beater – his lone three-pointer on the day — finalizing his tally at 13 points. Travis Fields Jr. added 12 on four made threes, while Holland and Ed Polite Jr. added 11 each.
Jones was awarded tournament MVP honors for his efforts. The redshirt freshman was joined by teammate Polite Jr., Liberty’s James and Cabbil, and Winthrop’s Adam Pickett on the All-Tournament Team.
Both teams set milestones during their tournament runs. Radford matches its program-high wins total in a season, having won 22 in three prior seasons (1990-91, 2013-14, and 2014-15). Liberty’s Friday win against UNC Asheville made it the first Flames team to ever accomplish back-to-back 20-win seasons. Liberty coach Ritchie McKay expressed his feelings for this year’s team to the assembled media after the game.
“This group here, they gave it everything they had. I couldn’t be any more proud of a group,” said McKay. “I know there had to be someone that didn’t win the game today, and unfortunately for us, it was us. We’ll root for Radford. Liberty wasn’t a loser today. We just didn’t win.”
Radford now awaits its NCAA destination, securing its first trip since a 101-58 loss to North Carolina in Greensboro in 2009. The NCAA berth is just the third in program history.
Liberty finishes its season and will now possibly head to either the CIT or CBI tournaments. The Flames participated in the 2017 CIT, making it to the final eight before falling, 80-68, at UMBC. This is Radford’s first postseason appearance since the 2015 CBI, in which it fell, 78-71, to Vermont after beating Delaware State by 21 in the opening round.
RADFORD 55, LIBERTY 52
LIBERTY (20-14): Cuffee 0-2 0-0 0, James 8-10 3-3 20, Cabbil 5-9 3-3 15, Kemrite 2-7 6, Pacheco-Ortiz 0-6 0-0 0, Baxter-Bell 1-1 2-2 4, Homesley 1-4 2-2 4, Williams 0-1 0-0 0, McDowell 1-1 0-0 3, Talbert 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 18-41 10-10 52.
RADFORD (22-12): Polite Jr. 2-9 7-10 11, Phillips 0-1 4-4 4, Jones 5-12 2-2 13, Bradford 0-2 0-0 0, Hicks 1-4 0-0 2, Tanner 0-4 0-0 0, Fields Jr. 4-6 0-0 12, Butts IV 0-1 2-2 2, Cousin 0-0 0-0 0, Holland 5-8 1-2 11. Totals 17-47 16-20 55.
Halftime — Radford 26, Liberty 21. 3-Point Goals—Liberty 6-19 (Cuffee 0-1, James 1-1, Cabbil 2-4, Kemrite 2-6, Pacheco-Ortiz 0-2, Homesley 0-3, Williams 0-1, McDowell 1-1), Radford 5-16 (Polite Jr. 0-2, Jones 1-3, Bradford 0-1, Hicks 0-2, Tanner 0-3, Fields Jr. 4-4, Butts IV 0-1). Fouled Out — None. Rebounds — Liberty 28 (James 13), Radford 27 (Holland 7). Assists —Liberty 13 (Cabbil 7), Radford 7 (Jones 6). Total Fouls — Liberty 15, Radford 13. Technical — None. A — 3,859 (3,800).
Points in the Paint —Radford 24, Liberty 20. Points off Turnovers —Radford 18, Liberty 11. Second-Chance Points — Liberty 5, Radford 5. Fast Break Points — Liberty 0, Radford 0. Bench Points — Radford 25, Liberty 11.
Big South Tournament Schedule – Read all of College Hoops Digest’s Big South Tournament coverage here
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 55, Liberty 52