Men’s Basketball Claims Third Consecutive ASUN Conference Title With Win OVer North Alabama
March 8, 2021, marked a year to the day since Liberty’s basketball team clinched a second straight ticket to March Madness in front of a jam-packed Vines Center. On that day in 2020, Ritchie McKay’s players soaked up the joy of the moment, the thrill of a repeat ASUN championship against rivals Lipscomb – but they had no idea that the world was about to change forever.
Since then, Liberty has been through the wringer of a season racked by the uncertainty of COVID-19. Schedules have changed at a moment’s notice, games have been canceled by everything from winter weather to TobyMac concerts, and Liberty has faced a transition year without four of last year’s starters. But Sunday’s 79-75 ASUN championship win over UNA proved that even with a new team and a chaotic year, at least one thing has stayed constant: Liberty is still the best team in the ASUN.
“It isn’t luck that these guys (Liberty) have won this league three years in a row,” UNA coach Tony Pujol said after the game. “They’ve won it three years in a row because their culture, their standards, are elite.”
It took a powerhouse performance from ASUN Player of the Year Darius McGhee to stave off a second-half comeback by the Lions, but the Flames held on, sealing a third straight ASUN tournament victory.
In a strange turn of events, Liberty came into Sunday’s game already qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Due to an NCAA rule that keeps DI newcomers out of March Madness for four years after moving from DII, ASUN runners-up UNA were ineligible for the Big Dance, meaning Liberty had already qualified for March Madness.
After starting both their previous playoff games slowly, however, the Flames arrived Sunday with a point to prove. Six points from McGhee powered the Flames onto a 10-1 run within the first two minutes. For most of the first half, UNA seemed down and out, with McGhee’s 13 first-half points leading Liberty to a 41-31 lead at half.
“It was huge to grab this win,” McGhee said. “Regardless of having the bid or not, it was still the ASUN championship game. We still wanted to come out here and play at a high level and do what we do.”
UNA overcame a No. 5 seeding to reach the championship, downing UNF and FGCU on its way to the title game, with sophomore forward Mervin James’ 37 points across both games proving crucial. But it took James nearly 15 minutes to get his first points on the board Sunday afternoon, and even with C.J. Brim’s seven first-half points, UNA could not get a look in.
A mere two weeks before, Liberty had swept UNA at home in a pair of 74-54 wins, and Liberty seemed ready to coast to a third straight championship win. But McKay expected things to change.
“We won by 20 both times in Lynchburg, and I said leading up to this game – that had nothing to do with what this game was going to be like,” McKay said. “I knew UNA was going to come back.”
And come back the Lions did. A furious period of play halfway through the second half saw Liberty’s lead suddenly cut from eight points to five.
Momentum was shifting, and the Flames suddenly teetered on the verge of collapse, unable to escape UNA’s high press. Hunted and harried, Keegan McDowell turned the ball over and was left lying face down on the court – the score was 62-62.
For a relatively young squad feeling the absence of leaders like Scottie James and Myo Baxter-Bell, it was the moment of truth – and McGhee and senior Elijah Cuffee stepped up. Over the next six minutes, Cuffee and McGhee scored 10 of Liberty’s 12 points, riding waves of UNA pressure. When Cuffee cut inside to gave Liberty a 74-70 lead with three minutes left, the game seemed back under control.
“They (UNA) do a good job of trying to turn the ball over,” Rode said. “They’re a good team and that’s part of what makes them good.”
With 1:04 left in the game, Rode sealed the game with a 3-pointer, and a pair of Chris Parker free throws stifled UNA’s final comeback attempt as the game ebbed away. McGhee’s 21 points and eight rebounds paced Liberty – and McKay had nothing but praise for the 5-foot-8-inch guard.
“He’s a big shot taker and a big shot maker,” McKay said. “He really believes in himself, and he believes in his teammates.”
With the dramatic late win, Liberty continued its ASUN dominance since moving into the conference in 2018. For Liberty’s players who lost a swing at an NCAA Tournament run last year, however, going back is an opportunity to make up for the missed moments and build on the legacy that Liberty’s seniors left last year.
“Those guys made some incredible deposits in this program,” McKay said. “Though they didn’t get to experience the fruit of their labor in last year’s tournament, I think the residual of what they did allowed this group to get to this point of our season.”
Liberty will find out Selection Sunday, March 14, who it will face in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
John Nekrasov is the Sports Editor. Follow him on Twitter at @john_nekrasov.