Liberty drops Big South opener at Gardner-Webb

liberty basketballLiberty held Gardner-Webb 18 points below its season average but struggled on offense in its Big South opener as the Runnin’ Bulldogs pulled out the 58-55 victory. The Flames fall to 9-6 while Gardner-Webb improves to 6-8.

Liberty had a chance at the end to tie the game after grabbing a rebound with 11 seconds left in and at the buzzer, Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz shot a contested three-pointer from the top of the key that hit the front of the rim.

Gardner-Webb’s Liam O’Reilly proved to be the difference maker in the Saturday’s contest scoring a game-high 27 points, shooting 9-17 from the floor and 7-11 from three-point range. The rest of the Gardner-Webb team shot 36.1 percent for the game converting 13-36 field goals.

For the fifth time this season, Scottie James posted a double-double with 11 points to go along with a game-high 13 rebounds. Liberty outscored the Runnin’ Bulldogs 30-22 in the paint and also from bench scoring 17 points while limiting GWU to nine points.

In his first start since the season opener, Ezra Talbert was a spark early in the game as he made a three-pointer on the first possession of the game while also grabbing a rebound and handing out an assist in the first six minutes of action. By the first media timeout, Liberty was on a 10-0 run to jump out to a 13-5 lead. Defense sparked Liberty’s early lead as they held GWU scoreless just over seven minutes.

Gardner-Webb countered with a 7-0 run to get back into the game (15-13) midway through the half. As the game stayed within a single possession, Liberty jumped out to a slight lead. In the final eight minutes of the first half, James was the difference maker for the Flames scoring eight points, pulling down two rebounds along with a steal.

The Flames would go into halftime with the 25-22 lead. Twenty-two points was the fewest points Gardner-Webb has scored in a half all season. Liberty’s bench scored nine points in the first half led by Elijah Cuffee with seven points. James led all scorers with 10 points to go along with four rebounds.

Picking up its offense to open the second half, Gardner-Webb outscored the Flames 16-9 in the first nine minutes of the half to take a 38-35 lead. Liberty would retake the lead at the 9:20-mark off a three-pointer by Ryan Kemrite (43-41) but Gardner-Webb would respond going on a run to hold a six-point lead (51-46) off back-to-back three-pointers by O’Reilly with 4:20 left in the game.

Down the stretch, O’Reilly proved to be the difference scoring nine points in the final five minutes and 12 seconds. ­­

Liberty will head back home to kick off the New Year as they play its first Big South home game against Charleston Southern. Tipoff against the Bucs is set for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Jan. 2 at the Vines Center.

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