LYNCHBURG, Va. – Liberty coach Ritchie McKay was prompted for what his team learned after Tuesday night’s game against Navy. He gave a nearly instantaneous answer.
“How to win a tough one,” said McKay. “We knew Navy wouldn’t give up … I think it’s good for us to be in close games and have to be able to win down the stretch.”
Navy trailed by as many as 16 in the second half, but managed to whittle the margin down to three with 1:47 to play. Liberty kept the Midshipmen at bay, however, draining eight free throws in the final 42 seconds to secure a 55-48 victory before an announced crowd of 4,010 at the Vines Center.
Making the win even more impressive was that the Flames were without star forward Caleb Homesley, who missed the game due to what McKay termed “load management”.
“We decided not to play Caleb, to rest him,” said McKay. “He got a little tweak yesterday in practice, and didn’t feel like he was full strength.”
Freshman forward Kyle Rode got the start in Homesley’s absence, and acknowledged the importance of his teammate’s presence.
“Obviously, Caleb’s such a big part of our team,” said Rode. “With him out tonight – really, that’s what makes us so great as a team. My teammates have confidence in me. It was the next man up, and I knew I didn’t have to do anything spectactular, just do the little things to help the team win, and that’s what I tried to do.”
The first half served as a harbinger of the defensive battle that would ensue, in which both sides endured prolonged stretches without field goals. Navy cut Liberty’s lead to one at 8-7 when Luke Loehr splashed a three-pointer at the 14:27 mark, but did not connect again from the field until a Sean Yoder jumper with 4:58 remaining in the half. Liberty, conversely, went nearly five minutes without a bucket, with a Shiloh Robinson triple breaking the string with 2:11 to play in the period. Neither side again scored in the half, giving Liberty a 24-15 lead at the interval.
Navy’s first significant run of the second half came midway through the second half. The Midshipmen scored on six possessions in a row, cutting in greater than half a margin that saw Liberty ahead by 15. With Liberty searching for answers on the offensive end of the floor and not having hit a field goal in nearly five minutes, guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz squared up for a triple from the right perimeter. The swish put the Flames back ahead by 10, and gave his team a much-needed boost.
“Considering – what were we in the second half, 2-for-12? – that was really big,” said McKay of the shot. “We try and measure our possessions on the quality of our shot, and we got some good looks in the second half. We just didn’t make them.”
“After Georgie hit the three, I think we just focused on getting stops,” said guard Darius McGhee. “They had scored a couple of times in a row, and we were just amped up and focused on getting that stop so we could get back into the swing of things.”
Pacheco-Ortiz, for his part, downplayed the significance of the shot.
“I think it wasn’t that big. We know that our offense will come, so we’ve just got to be hard to play against on defense,” said Pacheco-Ortiz. “I think when we get stops, that’s where we have our energy on.”
Navy (2-2) continued to peck away at the advantage, however. John Carter, Jr. knocked down two free throws, followed by five straight points from Cam Davis that helped trim the Liberty advantage to a single possession. Liberty (5-0) rose to that challenge, then put away the game in the span of one second.
Myo Baxter-Bell knocked down two free throws, and as Navy tried to bring the ball inbounds, Elijah Cuffee stole the ball and drew a foul. Cuffee then hit his two tries from the charity stripe, providing a seven-point margin from which Navy could never draw closer.
“Cuff’s play, when they were rolling the ball, to get the steal there, that’s just savvy,” said McKay. “We’ve got a few guys – a majority of guys – that just do the little things that lead to winning.”
Those little things have propelled Liberty to a 5-0 start for the first time since the 1991-92 season. The Flames will travel to the Bahamas for The Islands of Bahamas Showcase, in which they will play Morgan State, the winner of Rice/Milwaukee, and one other game over the span of three days.
McGhee paced Liberty with 13 points on 5-for-8 shooting. Pacheco-Ortiz tallied 12, and Cuffee added 10. Navy’s Cam Davis led all scorers with 16 points, hitting 5-of-14 from the floor and 3-of-9 from distance. Carter Jr. and Greg Summers contributed 10 apiece for the Mids.
Liberty next faces off with Morgan State Friday at 11:00am (Eastern) in Nassau, Bahamas. Navy returns home Friday night to face Lipscomb. That game is slated to begin at 7:00.