Liberty flames basketball defeats University of North Florida Ospreys 71-63 to advance to the ASUN championship

History was made in the Vines Center as Liberty junior guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz dribbled the ball down the court and came to a stop. The cheers from the 2,319 students and fans in attendance were deafening as, for the second year in a row, the Liberty Flames men’s basketball team advanced to a conference final championship game.

The Liberty Flames earned a narrow victory over the University of North Florida Ospreys 71-63 Thursday evening. The game was close-fought throughout, with two lead changes in the middle of the first half, and the largest lead being a meager eight points from the Flames.

“That was a really hard-fought college basketball game,” Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “I’ve been in a few of them over the course of 30 years, and I never felt comfortable with it, even though we led for a lot of the game.”

Liberty was led by redshirt junior forward Scottie James with nine rebounds and a season-high 24 points. Behind James followed redshirt junior guard Caleb Homesely with 13 points and sophomore guard Elijah Cuffee with ten points.

Not only did James earn his season-high score, he also secured the tenth spot on Liberty’s top-ten rebounders list with 620 career rebounds. James passed Antwan Burrus (2010-14), who held the tenth position with 616 rebounds.

Leah Stauffer-Liberty News Service

The Flames charged out at the beginning of the game with Cuffee leading the pack. Cuffee racked up the team’s first seven points and a vital midair steal within the first two and a half minutes of the game.

Despite Cuffee’s early start, North Florida forced its way back into the game. Led by junior forward Wajid Aminu, the Ospreys kept the game within five points and, with 11 minutes left in the half, took the lead 17-16.

Jessie Rogers-Liberty News Service

The two teams went back and forth for a three-minute stretch as Liberty senior guard Lovell Cabbil made a layup for a one-point lead, closely followed by a North Florida layup. James finally tied the game 19-19 on a free throw, only for Ospreys forward Carter Hendricksen to take the lead again on a three-pointer.

Liberty regained the lead for the rest of the game on a second-chance layup from James followed by a jumper from Homesely with 7:31 left in the first half.

The Flames struggled to maintain a comfortable lead for the majority of the game, however, as they were plagued with free throw inaccuracies. Liberty shot 38 percent on its free throws, only making two out of seven shots.

North Florida’s accurate three-point shooting all game only compounded Liberty’s problems as they shot 6-for-14 three-pointers and 11-for-24 overall.

The victory was in the balance as the teams entered halftime with a score of 35-30 Liberty.

The Flames celebrated their regular season victory in the ASUN over halftime, where they were presented with the Cliff Wettig Memorial Trophy for their achievement.

“I think our program continues to grow,” McKay said. “We’re privileged to be in the league. I think the league is really competitive and has tremendous coaching and really good players.”

The teams went back and forth for the second half, with Liberty climbing ahead by up to eight points, only for North Florida to claw its way back within four.

“We continued to do what we had to do, even when they got that lead,” North Florida Head Coach Matthew Driscoll said. “It seemed like it stayed around five or six, we got it back down, next thing you know it’s a two-point game and going back and forth.”

Jessie Rogers-Liberty News Service

Suddenly, with 4:42 left in the game, the Vines Center fell silent as Cabbil hit the court clutching his knee. The spectators watched in suspended agony as Cabbil writhed on the court just below the basket.

The students then exploded into life as Cabbil was helped to the locker room, ignited with a new fire after the injury. The chants and cheering grew to a feverish pitch as the Flames buckled down for the last four minutes of the game.

Though Cabbil returned to the court several minutes later walking on his own, he never returned to the game.

“He’s such a big part of the game,” McKay said. “I doubted, but I’m confident in the guys we have in our program. He means a lot to us. I hope he can play on Sunday.”

North Florida could not keep up when Liberty firmly set its sights on the victory after Cabbil’s injury. While the Flames had struggled with their free throws in the first half, they went 7-of-8 for the last four minutes. James led the scoring with four free throws and a layup.

The game came to a close as North Florida guard J.T. Escobar missed a three-point shot and Liberty came down with the rebound.

According to McKay, going to a conference championship again has not been an easy journey.

“For me, what I think is understated is the grind or the road that they’ve hauled to get here,” McKay said. “We’ve chosen to do it the harder way with a bunch of young guys and stuck with the pack line defensive system … I think what’s true about them is they’re excited about the way that they’ve gotten here. We’re by no means there yet, but we continue to strive and pursue and climb that ladder.”

A little more than an hour after Liberty secured its victory, so did Lipscomb. The Bisons trampled the NJIT Highlanders 78-55. Because of Lipscomb’s higher No. 1 seed, the Flames will travel to Nashville Sunday, March 10, for the ASUN conference championship.

The championship game will be available on ESPN and will begin at 3 p.m. E.T.

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