LYNCHBURG, Va. – Championship teams adjust. When one aspect of their game experiences a struggle, the others help win games.
Liberty proved that mantra Thursday night.
Despite a closing stretch in which the Flames knocked down just two field goals – on consecutive possessions – in the final 10:47, Liberty held off North Florida, 82-77, before an announced crowd of 5,613 in the Vines Center.
“(That was) a really hard-fought game, and we expected nothing less than that, because we know what a quality opponent North Florida is,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said after the game.
Liberty (25-3, 11-2 ASUN) capitalized on the North Florida zone early and often. The Flames connected on just over 62 percent of their tries in the opening 20, capitalized by a string of 10 consecutive buckets. The last of those makes – a Darius McGhee triple – provided LU its largest lead of the period at 10 points. Caleb Homesley and Scottie James took particular advantage of the Flames’ sizzling first half, respectively scoring 13 and 10 points.
“The middle was open,” said Homesley. “For us, we just try to attack what we see, and it just so happened that that was going.”
“I thought the first half was the difference in the game, when they scored 11 out of 13 possessions, shot 62 percent, and did something that they don’t do very often – score 40 points in the first half,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll commented. “I really think (in) the first half when they got separation on us … That two-minute spurt in the first half really gave them separation.”
North Florida (18-11, 11-3) prevented Liberty from securing separation for much of the period, hoisting 23 three-pointers. Seven of those tries from distance fell, including six combined from guards J.T. Escobar and Ivan Gandia-Rosa. The Ospreys shot just shy of 39 percent for the period, while dishing out eight helpers on 12 baskets.
UNF gradually chipped away at the Liberty advantage, which swelled as high as 12 on several occasions. Kyle Rode converted a layup with 10:47 to play to give the Flames a 12-point margin, but the Flames would not again connect on a try from the deck for greater than eight minutes. The Ospreys tried just nine field goals during that eight-minute stretch – hitting four – and trailed by just six when a James bucket broke the drought.
“Our EQ – emotional quotient – is high. I know it’s not a statistic that people can measure, but we pay a great deal of attention to it,” McKay said. “It was good to have that kind of adversity. On the other side of hard is usually what you want. We’ve gotta keep getting to that other side.”
The adversity continued to mount for the Flames, as the Ospreys reduced the Liberty lead to just a single possession on the strength of four consecutive buckets. Ryan Burkhardt splashed a corner triple to cap the string with 27 seconds remaining, slicing the lead to 79-77.
Liberty made just one of two free throws on the ensuing possession, leaving UNF with a quick attempt at a bucket to continue its comeback. J.T. Escobar’s layup attempt circled off the rim, however, and the Ospreys were never able to draw closer.
“We came down and executed. We came down and made plays. We made buckets. We had a layup to cut it to one,” said Driscoll, referring to Escobar’s attempt. “To our guys’s credit, they executed, and to (Liberty’s) credit, they made free throws when they had to.”
Homesley led the Flames with 28 points, knocking down 8-of-14 from the floor and 11-of-15 from the line. 10 of those free throws came in the final 4:07 of the game. Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz contributed 17, knocking down all eight of his free throw tries and snaring four rebounds. Scottie James added a double-double, scoring 16 and snaring 10 caroms.
Liberty shot 56.3 percent (27-of-48) and knocked down 24 of its 33 free throw attempts (72.7 percent).
Escobar paced four Ospreys in doubles, scoring 26 on 10-of-17 from the field and 6-of-12 from beyond the arc. Gandia-Rosa tallied 17 and dished out nine dimes. Wajid Aminu and Carter Hendricksen totaled 10 apiece.
The Ospreys were 28-for-59 (47.8 percent) for the game, with 17 of their makes coming from beyond the arc on 41 tries (41.5 percent). North Florida went to the line just six times, making four.
Both teams resume play Saturday, with Senior Night festivities scheduled for each. North Florida welcomes Lipscomb to UNF Arena, with a slated tip time of 5:00 (Eastern). Liberty will also take its home deck Saturday at 5:00, with Stetson paying a visit to the Vines Center.