Balanced offense leads to Flames victory over Gardner-Webb

The Liberty University men’s basketball team (16-11, 7-7) surged ahead Saturday, Feb. 10, to defeat the Gardner-Webb University Runnin’ Bulldogs (12-15, 7-7) with a score of 77-65.

The Runnin’ Bulldogs put up a fight for all 40 minutes of the game, but could not keep up with Liberty’s balanced offense.

The Flames had four players scoring in the double digits, including freshman Elijah Cuffee, who reached a career-high of 15 points. Cuffee was tied with senior Ryan Kemrite’s 15 points for the top-scoring position on the team.

“We had a really balanced scoring attack, but I think that is who we are,” head coach Ritchie McKay said. “I think we are at our best when it does not matter who scores, but that we are getting good shots.”

The Flames fought for dominance in the first half, opening with an 8-4 lead only to lose it when the Runnin’ Bulldogs grounded out an 11-0 run. Their run came to an end when Liberty’s defense buckled in and Cuffee shot for three, bringing the score to 15-11 GWU.

Shortly after Cuffee tied the game with another 3-pointer, Liberty burst into a 22-20 lead with seven minutes left in the first half when sophomore Myo Baxter-Bell sank a jumper. For the remainder of the game, the Flames never conceded the lead.

“For all the good things that happened offensively, we still needed to make some stops against a really good offensive team, and we did,” McKay said.

Liberty led 35-28 at the end of the first half with a total of five lead changes. At that point, sophomore Scottie James led the team in scoring with nine points, closely followed by Cuffee’s eight.

The Flames burned red-hot in the second period, starting with another 3-point shot from Cuffee followed by Kemrite’s first 3-pointer of the game.

The stands went wild when freshman Keegan McDowell faked a defender, easily making a 3-point shot afterward.

However, the Runnin’ Bulldogs were not ready to give up. Tension skyrocketed as GWU gained on the Flames near the five-minute mark, reaching a score of 62-61. Liberty barely held the lead.

“They were putting their head down and driving, and we were not doing a good job of guarding our man one-on-one, and we were not doing a good job of being in the gaps when someone gets beat one-on-one,” junior Lovell Cabbil said. “So that is something we need to go back and work on.”

GWU scored in 12 out of 13 of its possessions from the 14-minute mark until there were only five minutes left in the game.

GWU never regained the lead, though. Liberty kept the offensive pressure when Kemrite sank another 3-pointer assisted by James.

The last minute of the game was when the momentum really turned in the Flames favor. Cuffee snatched an offensive rebound as the shot clock wound down. After picking up the rebound, Cuffee dished the ball to Cabbil, who controlled the ball for an extra 35 seconds. The Runnin’ Bulldogs failed to regain possession.

“That was a huge possession,” Cuffee said. “It kind of reenacts what we do every day. We practice that all the time, just making tips and making the extra effort. I think that play kind of defines who we are.”

GWU racked up multiple fouls after the momentum shift, and the Flames sank every free throw as a result. The Flames last eight points were all free throws, helping them reach 87.5 percent in free throws for the game.

The game came to a close when Cabbil caught the rebound off of a missed 3-point shot from the Runnin’ Bulldogs.

The night also served as a celebration for Kemrite, who reached a school record of 229 career made 3-point shots during Wednesday night’s game against Charleston Southern University.

“It has been a long journey,” Kemrite said. “I don’t remember most of the threes I have made. It’s just a testament to the coaching staff and the people who have invested in me. It’s not just me, it’s all these people along the way who have invested in me and believed in me and in the school and I will never be able to repay that.”

Cuffee also reached a career-high 15 points for the game and made five assists with only one turnover. McKay was proud of Cuffee’s accomplishment.

“He and Keegan McDowell have done a tremendous job in elevating the prowess of our offense,” McKay said. “Those two aren’t playing like freshmen.”

The Flames are keeping their focus on the week ahead of them. They are playing away at UNC Asheville and Campbell, with Asheville being ranked number one in the Big South Conference.

Their next home game is Thursday, Feb. 22, at 7 p.m. against the Radford University Highlanders in the Vines Center.

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