Liberty Flames basketball prepares for their first round matchup against Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma state

The last time Liberty played in the NCAA Tournament, Caleb Homesley’s 30-point game powered the Flames to a historic first-round upset over Mississippi State. Two years, a global pandemic and a canceled March Madness later, the Flames are back in the Big Dance looking to pull off another upset – this time against Oklahoma State.

Ranked as a No. 13 seed this year, Liberty looks to knock off the No. 4 seeded Cowboys to match the team’s performance from two years ago and land Liberty’s second March Madness win in program history. In the way, however, stand the Cowboys led by Cade Cunningham, a 6-foot-8 guard projected by some as the No. 1 pick in the 2021 NBA Draft.

In his past four games, Cunningham has averaged 23.8 points per game, including a domineering 25-point performance to trounce March Madness No. 1 seed Baylor in the Big-12 conference semifinal. The true freshman has taken college basketball by storm this year, and Coach Ritchie McKay believes that even with the Cowboys young squad, Cunningham has the edge to win games in big moments.

“He just seems to have a maturity about him,” McKay said. “You look at all of his big shots at the end of games. I just think (Oklahoma State) have a group that really believes in themselves.”

According to the News & Advance, four of the five Cowboys players (including Cunningham) who are averaging above 9 points per game this season are freshmen or sophomores, and this is the Cowboys first appearance in the Big Dance since 2017.

Unlike the Liberty team that went to the tournament in 2019 or even the team that would have went to the tournament last year, McKay’s team also rests on young shoulders. Only two starters, junior Darius McGhee and senior Elijah Cuffee, played in that 2019 tournament run (along with redshirt junior Keegan McDowell), meaning that tonight’s game will be a baptism of fire for many of McKay’s players.

For McGhee, providing big-game experience after scoring 15 points as a true freshman in Liberty’s 2019 tournament loss to Virginia Tech is one of the biggest assets he can provide to the rest of the team.

“I think just letting them (the other players) know that what we do works,” McGhee said. “It’s easy to get lost in what’s ahead … the only thing that we can control is today, and make sure we go out and give it our best effort, continue to prepare for what’s ahead of us.”

Liberty Photography | Jacob Webb
VETERAN – Junior Darius McGhee leads the Flames with previous experience, playing in the 2019 March Madness tournament.

For Liberty to stay in stride with the Cowboys, keeping control of the game’s pace will be crucial. Oklahoma State looks to move the ball quickly and dominate the post, with 68% of its shots this season coming from inside the 3-point line as it averages nearly 10 more possessions per game than Liberty.

“They’ve got a great guard line,” McKay said. “They put a lot of pressure on you, because they get downhill and in transition they’re spectacular. It presents a lot of problems.”

With the Cowboys physicality and Cunningham’s versatility on offense, McKay knows his players will have their work cut out for them to keep the Cowboys explosive offense under control, with the KenPom rankings predicting Liberty will lose 74-67 to the Cowboys.

Overturning those odds will require Liberty’s defense to find a way to keep Cunningham quiet enough to keep pace offensively. It’ll be a big task, but if any team is cut out to try, it’s Liberty. The Flames are ranked No. 3 in scoring defense nationally this year, and they take care of the ball phenomenally, giving up turnovers on only 15.2% of possessions compared to the Cowboys 21.7%.

As a result, Liberty is billed by ESPN as one of the top 10 potential first-round upsets, and McKay believes his system will give his players a chance as the game rolls around.

“I don’t think our guys will be afraid of the moment,” McKay said. “We just have to focus on how difficult of a task it is to defend Oklahoma State, and then trying to get a good shot on the other hand. It’s the NCAA tournament, and you’re going to play someone good.”

With the Flames steady offensive pace and defensive solidity, 3-point shooting has often proved to be crucial to Liberty’s success in big games this year, and much of that burden will fall on McGhee’s shoulders. Liberty is a top-10 program in both 3-pointers made and 3-point percentage, and McGhee has played a massive role in that success, making 93 of Liberty’s 289 3-pointers this season.

But beating Oklahoma State will require McGhee and the Flames to reach another gear on both sides of the ball – and for McKay’s players, tonight will be a real test of their resilience.

Before the regular season started, ASUN preseason polls projected Liberty to finish second-best in the ASUN after losing four seniors. Now this young team has made it all the way to the NCAA Tournament, facing the biggest task of its season against an electric NBA prospect and a team McKay believes was under-seeded at No. 4.

For Cuffee, however, a final swing at a tournament run in his last year at Liberty is the moment he’s been waiting for.

“March Madness is super exciting,” Cuffee said. “Combining that with playing against somebody as talented as Cade, it’s going to be exciting. I’m just itching to play – I think everybody is here.”

Tipoff for Liberty’s game is at 6:25 p.m. EST in Indiana Farmers Coliseum. The game will air on TBS.

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