Liberty advances to semifinal matchup against Stetson in ASUN tournament

As the Flames headed to their locker room at halftime of their ASUN quarterfinal matchup against NJIT Tuesday, it was clear that the team’s regular game plan for victory was not going to work.

Liberty averages almost 70 points per game and shoots over 36% from 3-point range, but it had only scored 22 points entering halftime, shooting only one-for-10 from three. But lockdown defense and opportunistic shooting in the second half prevailed, securing a 55-49 win over the Highlanders and a spot in the semifinals of the ASUN tournament.

“I was really proud of our defensive effort,” Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “We ground out a really tough victory, and I thought our defense held the line and we were able to come up with some big plays in the second half.”

Liberty, who held the Highlanders to 49 points and 32.7% shooting, did just enough offensively to keep the game out of reach of any second-half NJIT comeback, holding the lead for over 38 minutes of the game. 

“For us, I think we just stayed the course,” Homseley said. “Our offense just wasn’t going, but we relied on our defense tonight.”

Photo by David Eppinger – Liberty Champion

Prior to the game, Homesley was announced as the ASUN Player of the Year and proceeded to take the court and do the same thing he has done for the Flames all season long – dominate on both offense and defense and lead his team to victory.

Along with his 14 points, Homesley secured nine rebounds, took away a steal and blocked two shots.

After entering halftime up 22-16, the Flames led most of the second half by eight to 12 points but were never able to put the game entirely out of reach of the Highlanders.

“There were segments in the game where I thought we were going to break it open,” McKay said. “NJIT did a good job making it hard for us.”

Led by their dynamic point guard Zach Cooks, the ASUN conference scoring leader in the regular season, NJIT kept up the pressure on the Flames until late in the game, cutting Liberty’s lead to five points at the one-minute mark. Cooks recorded 17 points on 33% shooting as he played all 40 minutes of the elimination game.

Marching down the stretch, however, the Flames won the game at the free-throw line, with Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, Mayo Baxter-Bell and Homesley helping the Flames shoot 70% from the line. NJIT was unable to capitalize on its chances to bring the lead down to one possession, and four points from Pacheco-Ortiz in the last minute ultimately helped the Flames hold off the Highlanders for the win. 

The Flames have only one day off before facing Stetson back in the Vines Center for the semifinal round on Thursday.

“I like our group,” McKay said. “We have an experienced team and are now 40 minutes away from playing in a conference final for the third consecutive year.”

Wylie is the asst, sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter @chadewylie

Photo by David Eppinger – Liberty Champion

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