Back-to-Back: Liberty Men’s basketball claims ASUN crown for second consecutive year

A packed Vines Center erupted when an attempted Lipscomb 3-pointer bounced off the rim and into Myo Baxter-Bell’s hands. With only 13 seconds remaining on the clock and the score at 73-57, the Flames knew a second consecutive ASUN championship victory – and a bid into the NCAA tournament – was theirs. 

“Our group showed its emotional maturity, and I think tonight was just a reflection of the growth that’s occurred in our guys,” Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “All our guys … have had ebbs and flows in their season. But man, we really came together. We were tough out on both ends of the floor.”

Liberty came flying out of the blocks in the first half, taking the lead about five minutes into the half and never releasing it. Despite Lipscomb’s best efforts to make a comeback after entering halftime down 45-26, the Flames held on and reached their biggest lead of 23 points in the second half.

The Flames saw several players receive honors after the game, with redshirt senior Scottie James, sophomore Darius McGhee and redshirt senior Caleb Homesley receiving all-tournament team honors. 

Homesley, who was also named the ASUN Player of the Year after the regular season, was named the tournament MVP, tallying 16 points and nine rebounds in the championship game. 

Junior Elijah Cuffee tied with Homesley for the most points on the team on the night, with Cuffee and Baxter-Bell proving critical to the team’s success. 

Cuffee, who was in a shooting slump until Sunday’s competition, went four-of-eight from 3 and picked up two steals. 

McKay said Cuffee’s offensive turnaround was not a surprise.

“You see how much confidence we have in (Cuffee) because of his defensive prowess,” McKay said. “And on the offense, we’ve got so many other guys that can score 10, double figures, 20, on a given night, that I think he was his own worst enemy, because he put so much pressure on himself. So, I think when the first one went in, he probably had a sense of relief and said ‘Finally,’ and from there he wasn’t hesitating shooting the next ones.”

One major problem for the Flames entering the game was Lipscomb center Ahsan Asadullah, an imposing figure in the post who averaged more than 30 points per game in the tournament. Asadullah had proved problematic for the Flames in past games, blocking shots and preventing them from turning the ball inside.

But Baxter-Bell had other plans for Asadullah Sunday afternoon. Baxter-Bell’s defense held Asadullah to 22 points throughout the game, including a streak of five straight missed baskets, while helping draw four personal fouls off of the center. 

Baxter-Bell also stripped two steals from Asadullah, both leading to Flames points through layups and free throws for Cuffee and Baxter-Bell.

McKay said Baxter-Bell was great not only in the plays he made but in how he played.

“Myo was terrific tonight,” McKay said. “Not just in his steals, but in his energy. He made great decisions, and I think he made it hard on Asadullah. Asadullah gets deep on everyone, and Myo, to his credit, he’s hard to get deep on. I was really proud of him. He deserved it.”

With Asadullah under control, the Bisons struggled to gain any major ground against the Flames. Bison guard Andrew Fleming added 15 points to their tally, while the rest of the team collectively produced 20 points.

The Bisons also gave up 20 points off of 13 turnovers, eight of which took place in the first half. The Flames capitalized on those turnovers, including three stellar dunks from Cuffee, James and McGhee. 

The Flames pulled outside of Lipscomb’s reach early in the second half after a pair of McGhee 3-pointers were closely followed by another pair of unanswered 3s from Cuffee.

McKay credited the team’s energy to the 7,728 fans in the Vines Center. The attendance was an ASUN tournament record. This marked the last scheduled game in the Vines Center, as the Liberty Arena will be complete next season. 

“Was that environment not phenomenal?” McKay said. “That was big time. That’s what you dream about when you’re a basketball player, when you’re in a program, and hats off to Flames Nation. They
were tremendous.”

The victory sealed the Flames bid into the NCAA tournament for the second year in a row. Their opponent and play location will be announced Sunday, March 15, during the NCAA selection party.

Baker is the sports editor. Follow her on Twitter.

David Eppinger | Liberty Champion
ROAD TRIP — The Flames will find out where they play during Selection Sunday, March 15.

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