Can Flames replicate dream run?
Liberty hopes to repeat as Big South Champions going into the tournament with the same record as last year
The Empire State Building is struck by lightning about 100 times a year, according to ABC News.
And they say lightning never strikes in the same place twice.
On the eve of the Big South Tournament, the Liberty men’s basketball team is hopeful it will strike again for them as it attempts to replicate last season’s improbable Big South
“I think we have the best talent in the league,” Flames guard John Caleb Sanders said. “We have size. We guard well. We have the ability to knock down shots. I’m not guaranteeing we’re gonna go to the championship and win it again, but if we play well, anything can happen.”
Last year, after a more down than up campaign during the regular season, the Flames caught fire during the Big South Tournament in Conway, S.C., and walked away with their first conference championship since 2004.
Entering the year with high expectations, the Flames have endured a similar regular season as last year’s team, winning only five conference games. A big part of this year’s struggle has been a season-long shooting slump from 2013 tournament dynamo Davon Marshall, who has hit only 33 percent of his shots on the year, compared to 45 percent last season.
On the eve of the tournament, Marshall has begun to find his shot again, however. Besides an off night against Longwood, he has had four solid showings in his past five games, scoring a combined 49 points in those four while shooting 10-24 from beyond the arc. Marshall said he continues to work hard on his shot and is becoming more confident heading into the tournament.
“I feel a swagger when I walk into (the HTC Center),” Marshall said. “I just feel it again.”
Marshall was really feeling it in last year’s Big South tourney, knocking down 17 of his 24 three-point attempts. He went 6-7 from three in the tournament final versus Charleston Southern.
While the Flames look very similar to last year’s team, there are a few different pieces. High-scoring guard Tavares Speaks is gone, but senior forward Antwan Burrus is back after missing the 2012-2013 campaign with a stress fracture in his foot. Burrus, now the Flames leading scorer, was able to celebrate with the team last year, but did so while wearing street clothes rather than a uniform.
“It would mean a lot (to be on the floor for a tournament championship),” Burrus said. “I didn’t play last year, so I’m eager to get on that court.”
The Flames will need to be able to finish close games if they hope to make another run in the tournament, something they have struggled with all year. Eight of the Flames 11 conference losses have been by single digits, including their final game of the season versus Radford in which they blew a 12-point lead with a little more than seven minutes remaining.
Lightning may or may not strike twice for the Flames, but it is sure to strike for one of the 12 Big South teams in Conway when the tournament concludes March 9, giving the winner an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
Teams to watch in Conway:
Coastal Carolina (11-5 Big South): The Flames lost the only meeting between the two teams this year on a running bank shot with 1.6 seconds to go in the game. The Chanticleers were the Flames first victim in last year’s conference title run.
High Point (12-4 Big South): One of the Big South Player of the Year favorites John Brown makes the Panthers tick. He is a threat to score anywhere inside 15 feet and can easily go off for a double-double. The Panthers are the hottest team in the Big South entering the tournament, winning their past six contests and 10 of their last 11.
University of North Carolina at Asheville (10-6 Big South): Andrew Rowsey, who played his high school ball about an hour from Lynchburg in Lexington, Va., leads the Big South in scoring as a freshman. He shoots the ball as well as anyone in the country, hitting more than three three pointers per game. The Flames will have to deal with Rowsey and the rest of the Bulldogs in the first round of the tournament.
Virginia Military Institute (11-5 Big South): The Keydets boast the top-scoring offense in the country. Freshman shooting guard QJ Peterson might not be tall (he is listed at 6-foot-even), but he can fill up the points column. His backcourt mate Rodney Glasgow can score too, dropping 27 and 25 points during VMI’s two meetings with Liberty this season.