Flames take down Jacksonville in ASUN Quarterfinals
The Liberty Flames basketball team made history Monday evening, March 4, as they defeated Jacksonville University in the Atlantic Sun championship quarterfinals game. Despite a lower attendance than normal, the 1,738 students and fans were loud and active in the Vines Center.
The win was the Flames first ever ASUN championship win as they took down the Dolphins 72-58, led by Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz with 16 points, followed by Scottie James with 15 points and Lovell Cabbil’s 11 points.
The game was Liberty’s third matchup against Jacksonville this season. The Flames defeated the Dolphins in both of their previous matchups 69-53 and 69-59, though the second win was a tight one as the Flames came back from a double-digit deficit in the second half to win the game.
According to Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay, the team went into the game knowing that they were facing a challenging opponent.
“I was very concerned going into the game because of how athletic and well-coached Jacksonville is,” McKay said.
Jacksonville started the game on a rough stretch. Despite winning the tip off, the Dolphins shot 0-5 for the first several minutes of the half while the Flames built their lead up to 11 points. By the time five minutes had passed, the score was 11-2 with no sign of the Flames letting up.
Despite the strong start, Liberty faltered from the 15-minute mark, opening up a five-minute scoring drought until James made a layup at the ten-minute mark. Jacksonville tied the game moments later, pulling the score up to 13-13.
The tie was shortly broken when Caleb Homesley charged in for another layup, though he could not shake the Flames out of their slouch.
The game changed when James fell to the court, the Vines Center falling quiet as he lay on his back and the whistles blasted. A replay showed what many had missed: Jacksonville’s David Bell pulling James down to the court by his shoulder after the two had gone up for a rebound.
Bell’s actions, though James insisted they were not malicious, resulted in a flagrant foul called against him and Bell’s disqualification from the game.
“I don’t think he did it on purpose,” James said. “He’s not a dirty player; he’s a great kid. I think he just got caught and didn’t know what was going on as much. It wasn’t anything malicious, I don’t think.”
For the Dolphins, the foul was a tough one to overcome. Not only were they missing Bell, but they were also missing guard Tyreese Davis, who suffered a torn ACL weeks before in a matchup against NJIT.
“No one really expected him to get ejected but then he was ejected,” Jacksonville guard Aamahne Santos said. “That kind of deflated us a little bit and then they hit I think three 3s, so it was tough.”
The foul brought the Flames back to life and united them as a group. James shot for two free throws after the foul, followed by a string of three-pointers from Homesley and Darius McGhee, pulling the Flames ahead 23-13.
Keenan Gumbs continued the Flames streak a moment later when he drove past the entire Jacksonville team for a dunk, topping off Liberty’s eight-point run in just 34 seconds. Their play was unmatched by the Dolphins, who struggled to keep up with the sudden rush from the Flames.
From there, the Flames never released their clutch. Despite Jacksonville’s best efforts, they only came within 10 points of the Flames in the half once after the foul.
Liberty’s dominance showed in its numbers as well as their score. At the half, Liberty was shooting for 44 percent while Jacksonville shot for a meager 28 percent, with a score of 34-19.
The Flames continued their tear into the second half, led for the first 16 points by three players who had not scored in the first half: Myo Baxter-Bell, Lovell Cabbil and Elijah Cuffee.
“I think our bench is becoming more and more confident,” McKay said. “And even in games where they don’t have the numbers, I think they have been able to stem the tide and contribute in a way that doesn’t get a whole lot of attention.”
The Flames experienced another slump in the middle of the second half, allowing Jacksonville to climb within nine points of the lead with seven minutes left. Pacheco-Ortiz and Cabbil both stepped in and pulled the game ahead again, contributing to extend the Flames lead to 19 points in a matter of two and a half minutes.
“In the second half we kind of hit a little lapse in defense, so we have to clean that up and work towards that for the next game,” James said. “We have a group of guys who are resilient and we know that teams can come back, so we just have to keep fighting.”
Cabbil brought the Vines Center to life as he faked out Jacksonville’s defenders for a layup in the middle of the streak, easily sliding past the Dolphins and sending one of them to the court as he tripped over his own feet.
After the Flames streak, the game was over. The Dolphins scored seven points in the last five minutes while Liberty made 10. The only points made in the last 1:30 of the game were from two Cabbil free throws.
The game ended with McGhee victoriously hurling the ball straight up into the air as the buzzer rang. Jacksonville returned to their bench as the ball bounced back down and Flames fans went wild.
Despite Jacksonville outscoring the Flames 39-38 in the second half, they could not claw back the lead from their 15-point deficit in the first half. The Flames shot for a strong 52.2 percent, and the Dolphins weren’t far behind with 43.1 percent.
The Flames are now setting their sights on the ASUN semifinals game, which will take place in the Vines Center Thursday, March 7, at 7 p.m. The Flames will be hosting North Florida, the only conference team other than Lipscomb to defeat Liberty this season.
“Our goal every game is to get better,” McKay said. “Offensively I thought we were really unselfish and made some good reads. We gotta get better at maintaining the lead.”