Flames command in season opener, fall short against Crimson Tide
The Flames set Liberty Arena on fire in their home opener Nov. 7, stepping onto the court to host the NCAA Division II Regent Royals.
Spirits were high as the team burst to life in hopes of earning Head Coach Ritchie McKay his 200th victory in front of 3,885 Flames fans.
While the Royals weren’t anticipated to pose a stiff challenge to the Flames, the game was a way for the team to get its feet wet on the court, especially for its newcomers.
The Flames’ first points of the year were put on the board by none other than point guard Darius McGhee, sinking a shot from downtown to get the crowd buzzing. The rest of the half, however, would go on to be the Colin Porter show, as Liberty flaunted its newest point guard.
Porter was all over the court, recording five steals and five points before halftime. The true freshman brought immediate stability to the offense, hinting that Liberty’s problems of not having a true point guard could be a thing of the past.
While the Royals attempted to hang early with offensive savvy from forward Andrew Walston, his 14 points in the first half would not be enough to stifle a 24-0 run by the Flames that broke the game open before halftime.
The second half would see all 13 Liberty players get some action on the court as the defense showed off, playing at a fast, aggressive pace that stumped their opponent. Regent failed to put up a point in the final 8:44 of the second half.
A layup from guard Brody Peebles would seal the deal on the night, as Liberty walked away with a commanding 104-38 victory, the highest score put up in Flames program history.
McGhee and Peebles left the arena as Liberty’s top scorers on the night, putting up 17 points apiece. The win was McGhee’s 105th victory in a Flames jersey, the most any player in the program has ever accumulated.
Freshman forward Zachary Cleveland made an impressive debut, putting up 11 points, three rebounds and three assists. His aggressive style and playmaking ability jumped out on the court, something that his teammates have seen since the day he arrived in Lynchburg.
“That kid’s wired different,” forward Blake Preston said of Cleveland. “He’s wired to compete. He’s wired to go after you. I remember one play (in practice), he hit me kind of hard, and I looked at him and I was like, ‘Dude, if you play every possession like that, we’re gonna go far.’”
While the season-opening win may not have come as a surprise to many, it marked a milestone for the head of the program as McKay notched his 200th win after 10 seasons with the Flames.
“I think when I’m done coaching, maybe I’ll look back on however many outcomes that went our way,” McKay said. “But when you’re in the midst of the season, you’re really looking for improvement … For us, the barometer is how hard we play, how selfless we are, and how much they’re enjoying it.”
After a powerful debut in front of the home crowd, the Flames knew they couldn’t get too joyful as they looked ahead to the formidable opponent awaiting them down south.
Liberty made the trip to Tuscaloosa, Alabama, to face the No. 20 Crimson Tide at Coleman Colosseum Nov. 11 — a game that had been circled on the Flames’ calendar for quite some time.
Liberty managed to snag the early advantage, as guard Joseph Venzant put up five points in the first few minutes. It wouldn’t take long, however, for the SEC team to gain an edge as they went on an 11-0 run to take a 27-17 lead over Liberty.
Alabama made it a priority to keep McGhee contained from the start, limiting him to four attempts from the field in the first half. McGhee only saw nine minutes of court time in the opening half and would be held to just eight points on the night.
While the Flames went into the locker room down only 40-31, the Crimson Tide would roll in the second half, displaying sheer physical power.
Liberty struggled to find rhythm on the floor, picking up uncharacteristic fouls as Alabama’s attack cruised to a 95-59 victory. The Crimson Tide shot over 50% from the field, 10-22 from downtown and 31-38 from the free-throw line.
“Anytime you give up 31 made free throws, 17 second-chance points and 16 points off turnovers … that’s not a good recipe for victory,” McKay said. “Hopefully, we’ll learn a lot from this.”
The Flames shot at just 32.7% and were 7-27 from the field in the second half. Forward Shiloh Robinson led Liberty in scoring, putting 11 points on the board.
“I felt like we had great opportunities, great shots, but just didn’t knock them down,” Venzant said. “Of course, I don’t think we’re going to have most nights like that. I feel like we have a really good shooting team, and tonight, it just wasn’t falling for us.”
While the power conference letdown was unusual for the Flames, McKay insists that the disappointing result does not define the fight of his group.
“This is one game,” McKay said. “To their credit, our guys have raised expectations so high people expect us to win it every time. I’ve been around it long enough to know there’s a long runway to conference play and to postseason play. I don’t think you’ll see too many teams overwhelm us like Alabama did.”
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter