VMI rally falls short at Liberty

Stan Okoye returned from injury to post 21 points and 12 rebounds, but a second half rally by VMI fell short in the waning moments as the Liberty Flames defeated the Keydets, 78-69, in Big South basketball action Tuesday night in Lynchburg, Va.

The Keydets (12-14, 7-9 Big South) trailed by as many as 17 in the opening half, but VMI fought its way back after halftime. Down by 15 at intermission, and with 17:51 to play, the Keydets drew within single digits with 15:17 remaining after a Jordan Weethee three-pointer. From there, the lead was gradually cut down, piece by piece, until a thunderous Okoye dunk with 3:04 remaining made it a 69-66 game.

Unfortunately for the Keydets, Liberty (12-16, 7-9) guard Jesse Sanders answered with a basket, and on the ensuing possession, Okoye turned the ball over on a drive down the lane. Okoye did cut it to a four-point game with 1:17 left, but the Flames ended the game on a 7-2 run and hung on for the victory. The two teams are now tied for sixth place in the Big South standings, with two conference games remaining for each club.

Okoye, who missed Saturday’s game against Gardner-Webb due to concussion-like symptoms, led VMI in both scoring and rebounding en route to his third double-double of the year. Ron Burks added 13 points, and Keith Gabriel chipped in 12 despite spending the majority of the game in foul trouble.

David Minaya had 20 points for Liberty, while Jesse Sanders had a double-double as well, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.

VMI jumped out to a 5-3 lead in the opening moments, but that would be the last Keydet lead of the night. Liberty answered with a 12-2 run, and went ahead 15-7 after a Tavares Speaks basket at the 13:50 mark.

The home team’s lead grew as the Keydets went cold from the field. After Gabriel made a three 69 seconds into the game, VMI shot just one for its next 12 from distance. The visitors had just one field goal over a span of 9:37 on the game clock, a run during which Gabriel went to the bench with his third foul. When that drought ended with an Okoye hoop at 6:35, the Flames had a 25-13 lead.

That lead grew to 17 with 4:12 left in the half, after John Caleb Sanders hit a three-pointer, and the teams traded baskets over the remainder of the half, with Jarid Watson scoring the last hoop of the period, making it 41-26, Liberty, at halftime.

Minaya had 12 points in the first half to lead all scorers, while the home team took advantage of a 22-8 edge in points in the paint. VMI shot just 3 of 18 (16.7%) from distance in the opening half, but Liberty missed a chance to potentially put the Keydets away, as the Flames shot a dismal 1 of 7 (14.3%) from the line over the first 20 minutes.

VMI would take advantage of that in the second half, as after Liberty scored four of the period’s first six points and took a 17-point lead again, 45-28, the Keydets embarked upon a 9-2 run. The spurt included five points by Michael Sparks, and with 16:03 remaining, the Keydets were back within 10, 47-37.

Minaya answered with a jumper for the Flames, but Weethee drilled a three at the other end, and for the first time since early in the first half, the lead was down to single digits, 49-40. Liberty would assume a pair of other double-digit leads, but the Keydets got the lead under 10 for good with 10:22 to go, when Okoye hit the second of two free throws.

After yet another basket by Minaya, Gabriel and Okoye teamed to run off five straight points, cutting the lead to four with 7:57 left, 57-53. The Flames would seemingly pull away a bit over the next two minutes, stretching the margin back out to eight at 65-57, but Gabriel ended that run with a trey with 5:22 to play. The senior then stole the ball near midcourt, dribbled to the hoop and converted an acrobatic lay-in, chopping the deficit to three, 65-62.

After an exchange of baskets, the Flames’ Antwan Burrus pushed the lead back to five, but Okoye answered with a resounding dunk in the lane, making it a 69-66 contest and setting the stage for the final sequences. After a dismal effort from the line early, Liberty made seven of its final eight free throws to quell the Keydet rally and earn the victory.

For the game, VMI shot 27 of 67 (40.3%), but that effort was greatly improved in the second half, when it showed 16 of 31 (51.6%). Liberty’s field goal effort was 32 of 56 (57.1%), including 19 of 31 (61.3%) as the Flames built their large lead early. The teams combined to shoot just 21 of 39 at the charity stripe, as Liberty sat at 12 of 23, while VMI was 9 of 16. Six of VMI’s seven misses came in the second half.

VMI basketball will return to action Saturday, as the Keydets play host to the Tribe of William & Mary in the SEARS BracketBusters event. Game time at Cameron Hall is set for 1 p.m.

Quotes – VMI Head Coach Duggar Baucom

“We weren’t ready to play in the first half. That was evident at the outset. And it showed, we started the game 4 of 26, or something like that, from the floor. In the second half, I thought we got into a better groove. I’ve always said it’s easier to play when you’re down 15, you have nowhere to go but up. You have to fight a little bit then and I thought that was a classic case of what we did tonight.”

“In the second half, we tried to win every four minutes and we pretty much did that. When we were down four we came down and took a bad shot and they were able to get it back to 6. It became a 4-6 point game situation instead of a 2-4 point game in the last minutes.”

“In the first half, it looked like a hot potato game, whoever caught it, shot it. It looked like a pickup game and we don’t play that way. We took some horrendous shots in the first half and it was evident by not getting to the free throw line – we only took two free throws. In the second half, we said you’ve got to get it to the rim which we did. Then we made plays, but then we didn’t make free throws.”

“Jarid Watson played great tonight. Coming out of the huddle at the eight minute timeout in the first half, we told everyone to touch Jarid , because he was the only one playing with energy.”

“They were just a step quicker than us in rebounding and we just asked the team before we left the locker room, where is the team that had the energy against Asheville and Winthrop? Same guys, same exact group. We’ve got to figure that out and be prepared for the next three games.”


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