LYNCHBURG, Va. – Liberty came into Tuesday’s first-place battle with A-Sun foe Lipscomb off a series of first-half struggles in games it eventually won, knowing it was playing with fire.
Those opening-stanza struggles persisted against the Bisons, and as a result, the Flames got torched.
Lipscomb shot at a 62.1 percent clip in the first half and eventually opened up a lead as large as 29 points, running away from Liberty, 79-59, before an announced crowd of 5,053 at the Vines Center.
“I thought Lipscomb was the much better team tonight. We got exposed in some areas that we obviously need to get better in,” said Liberty coach Ritchie McKay. “We’ve gotta do a better job of preparing our guys to play against a team like that, because that’s a really good team.”
The game started as the clash of Atlantic Sun titans most expected, with the sides level at five after five minutes. Lipscomb (17-4, 8-0 Atlantic Sun) then went on a 6-0 burst, creating some separation. The Bisons’ lead dipped as low as four after the Flames countered, but the visitors pulled away over the next segment. Another 14-4 run by Lipscomb stretched the lead to 14, leaving the home side unable to draw any closer than 10 points before the interval.
Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander impressed upon his team the importance of staying focused and continuing to control tempo, knowing Liberty’s recent first-half struggles.
“Our guys play hard, and they’re a physical group, and we’ve been a really good defensive team all year long, so once we got the lead, it made it tough for them,” said Alexander. “It was really important (not to let Liberty back in the game). We talked about it at halftime. We were really worried. What can often happen is (that) they come out and get a 5, 7-0 run to start the half, and then it’s a completely different game.”
Liberty (18-5, 7-1) came out of the locker room looking to right the ship, and the Lipscomb defense again rose to the occasion. The Bisons forced a turnover on the Flames’ first possession of the second stanza, leading to an Eli Pepper dunk and a quick calming of Alexander’s concern.
“We (got) a steal on the opening possession, and we scored on our first possession,” said Alexander. “Just right away, we settled down a little bit, and didn’t really have to think about the what-ifs.”
The lead stayed in the 20-point range for much of the first seven minutes of the half, before Liberty gradually chipped away at the advantage. The Flames outscored Lipscomb 9-4 over a two-minute stretch, with Lovell Cabbil draining the first Liberty three in 12 tries on the night to cut the Lipscomb margin to 15.
Just as it had all night, though, Lipscomb had a counterpunch ready.
Ahsan Asadullah put back Lipscomb misses on back-to-back possessions, with Garrison Mathews splashing consecutive triples on the next two possessions. Those four trips swelled the lead from 15 to 25, leading to a timeout by McKay. Kenny Cooper then drilled a long-distance try on the ensuing possession, essentially putting away the Flames.
“It was a great answer, because there was plenty of time left,” said Alexander. “There was enough time left in the game for them to win by double figures. Getting those two putbacks, and then Garrison being the player that he is and coming through for us … He’s a coach’s dream.”
“It (that sequence) was huge,” added Mathews. “When you have stuff down low like that, it opens up things from the three. I was just fortunate enough to knock some down.”
Lipscomb held Liberty to just 4-for-22 from distance on the evening, forcing misses on the first half of the Flames’ tries. The Bison defense forced the Flames out of their gameplan, leading to a series of out-of-system shots.
“I thought they came in and they outtoughed us. They did what they do more times than we did what we do,” said Liberty guard Lovell Cabbil. “We weren’t getting the threes that we wanted to get … I thought we were playing around the perimeter and jacking threes off the dribble, and that’s not what we do.”
Despite the loss, McKay and the team kept perspective, as they pursue a league title in their first year of Atlantic Sun play.
“(We’ve) just gotta let (the team) know that we still have more games left in the season. That wasn’t the championship, regardless (of whether or not) we’d have won. We wouldn’t have gotten a trophy after the game,” said Cabbil. “We’ve just gotta let guys know that the sun’s gonna rise tomorrow, and we’ve gotta play another game Saturday.”
“We’re 18-5, and 7-1,” said McKay. “If it was 79-78, maybe there’s (a turning point in the season). We have a good team that’s mature. We’ll bounce back.”
Lipscomb placed three players in double figures, paced by Mathews’ 22. Rob Marberry added 14, with Eli Pepper tossing in 11. The Bisons shot 55.4 percent from the field, knocking down 50 percent (9-for-18) from three.
Liberty was led by Caleb Homesley, who tallied 12. Cabbil added 11. The Flames connected on 37.3 percent from the field, leading to a succinct assessment of the proceedings from McKay.
“I think we were poor on the defensive end, and I thought we were even poorer on the offensive end,” stated McKay.
Both teams return to the court Saturday. Lipscomb hosts North Alabama in Allen Arena in a 4:00 (Central) tip. Liberty hosts NJIT in the Vines Center Saturday night. That game is scheduled to commence at 7:00 (Eastern).
LIPSCOMB 79, LIBERTY 59
LIPSCOMB (17-4, 8-0 A-SUN): Marberry 7-11 0-0 14, Pepper 5-7 0-1 11, Buckland 0-1 0-0 0, Cooper 2-3 0-0 5, Mathews 7-13 3-4 22, Asadullah 3-7 0-0 6, Moran 2-2 1-1 6, Rose 0-2 4-5 4, Fleming 3-5 0-1 7, Wolfe 2-4 0-0 4, Jones 0-1 0-2 0, Flener 0-0 0-0 0, Merritt 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 31-56 8-14 79.
LIBERTY (18-5, 7-1 A-SUN): James 2-5 1-2 5, Homesley 5-16 2-2 12, Cabbil 2-7 6-6 11, Cuffee 3-4 0-0 8, Pacheco-Ortiz 0-4 1-2 1, McGhee 2-5 0-0 4, Baxter-Bell 4-7 0-0 8, Gumbs 2-6 1-1 5, McDowell 2-5 0-0 5, Farquhar 0-0 0-0 0, Newton 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 22-59 11-13 59.
Halftime — Lipscomb 42-24. 3-Point Goals—Lipscomb 9-18 (Pepper 1-2, Buckland 0-1, Cooper 1-1, Mathews 5-8, Moran 1-1, Rose 0-2, Fleming 1-2, Jones 0-1), Liberty 4-22 (James 0-2, Homesley 0-5, Cabbil 1-2, Cuffee 2-3, Pacheco-Ortiz 0-2, McGhee 0-2, Baxter-Bell 0-1, Gumbs 0-2, McDowell 1-3). Fouled Out — Cabbil (LU). Rebounds — Lipscomb 36 (Pepper/Asadullah 8), Liberty 30 (Baxter-Bell 6). Total Fouls — Liberty 17, Lipscomb 14. Technical — NA. A — 5053.
Points in the Paint —Lipscomb 38, Liberty 32. Points off Turnovers —Lipscomb 18, Liberty 17. Second-Chance Points — Liberty 16, Lipscomb 11. Fast Break Points — Lipscomb 3, Liberty 2. Bench Points— Lipscomb 27, Liberty 22.