Second-half comeback sends Liberty to Big South Championship

liberty basketballLiberty made history Friday night becoming the first team in school history to record back-to-back 20-win seasons and the Flames’ 20th win came in the Big South Semifinals over the No. 1 seed UNC Asheville. Down 12 points at halftime, Liberty was able to rally pulling off the thrilling second half comeback defeating the Bulldogs 69-64.

“That is a really good team (UNC Asheville) right there and we knew it was going to be tough. We got down 15 and our guys kept believing,” head coach Ritchie McKay said. “Everyone that played contributed and we had a toughness about us that was significant.”

After struggling in the first half offensively, Liberty (20-13) shot lights out in the second half making 56.5 percent (13-23) of its shots, outscoring the Bulldogs 43-26 in the latter half. To kick start the comeback with 16 minutes left in the game down 12 points (43-31), Liberty would go on an 18-9 run to come within three points of the Bulldogs’ lead (52-49) with a little over eight minutes left in the game.

Continuing to scratch and claw their way towards UNC Asheville’s lead, the Flames were down 56-62 with 5:58 left in the game and responded with a 15-0 run over the course of five minutes and 28 seconds to take a 66-56 lead. Caleb Homesley finished with only eight points and his biggest shot of the game came with just over one minute left in the game nailing a three-pointer in the corner, in front of Liberty’s bench to make it 62-56.

“We came into halftime struggling and coach (McKay) told us in the locker room that he believed in us,” Homesley said. “We had a really good effort in the second half. We knew we had a run coming and I think the run we made late in the game was because a spirit of belief.”

After taking the lead, Liberty was clutch from the free-throw line shooting 86.7 percent (13-15) from the charity stripe in the second half to come away with the win. In the final 3:34 of the game, Liberty would make 9-10 from the charity stripe to seal the win.

Scottie James posted his ninth double-double of the season scoring 18 points and grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds. The Flames outscored the Bulldogs 28-14 inside the paint. After zero points and five rebounds in the first half, Lovell Cabbil was huge in the second half scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds.

Liberty was the only team to beat UNC Asheville (21-12) at the Kimmel Arena this season and remained as the only team in the Big South to post a winning record on the road this season.

After Liberty started the game with a 6-2 lead, UNC Asheville was able to take the early advantage going on a 10-0 run for a six-point lead (12-6) at the 13-minute mark. As the Flames went five and a half minutes without making a field goal, the Bulldogs made five straight field goals during that time led by MaCaio Teague and Drew Rackley with five points each.

Midway through the half Myo Baxter-Bell provided offense for Liberty scoring five points in addition to five rebounds. As Liberty continued to struggle on the offensive end the Bulldogs were able to capitalize going on a 9-0 run late in the half to jump out to a 13-point lead (28-15). Offensive rebounds plagued the Flames in the first half as the Bulldogs pulled down six offensive rebounds that led to 10 points in the first half.

The Flames would go into the break trailing UNC Asheville 38-26. James led the Flames with 10 points in the first half to go along with four rebounds. UNC Asheville’s Raekwon Miller and Teague led all scorers with 11 points each in the first half. Liberty would shoot just 38.1 percent (8-21) in the first half while the Bulldogs converted 12-28 field goals (42.9%).

While the Flames turned the corner in the second half on offense, their defense turned up as well limiting the Bulldogs to just 25 percent, converting just 6-24 field goals in the final 20 minutes. Miller and Teague finished the game with 19 points each while Ahmad Thomas was the third Bulldog to score double-digits with 11 points.

“We said our team is capable of much and they are but we have another one on Sunday,” McKay added. “In our third year I am proud of our guys because I think they have a spirit of belief and a pride of representing our university.”

After playing the first two games at Kimmel Arena in Asheville, N.C. the Flames will make the trip to Radford, which is the highest remaining seed sitting at No. 2. Tipoff at the Dedmon Center is set for 1 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN.

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