Liberty takes the win over Villanova in NIT Tournament

A Flames season with high expectations found a disappointing result March 5 in Kennesaw, Georgia, vanquishing Liberty’s dreams of a conference title and NCAA Tournament berth. The ASUN Final letdown, however, was not the end of the story for this team.

Liberty received its first bid in program history to the National Invitational Tournament, and that meant its time on the court this season isn’t quite finished. The invite brought the three-time NCAA National Champion Villanova Wildcats to Liberty Arena for the first round of NIT competition.

“This book hasn’t closed,” senior forward Kyle Rode said prior to Liberty’s matchup with Villanova.

The book remains to be closed, as the Flames pulled off the thrilling upset over the Wildcats in a scrappy fight, battling with one of the nation’s premier programs until the buzzer sounded with a 62-57 final.

Photo taken by Ellie Bruss

“I have a ton of respect for Villanova and their program,” Liberty Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “I think it’s a win that we’ll value a ton. Villanova has a winning DNA having been to three Final Fours in the last seven years. There’s a lot of guys that touched a lot of success.”

Flames guard Darius McGhee opened scoring on the night with a 3-pointer, foreshadowing the performance that was to come for the Roxboro native. After an uncharacteristic outing in the ASUN Final where he was 0-11 from 3-point range, McGhee regained his rhythm, finishing the night with 27 points and 5-13 beyond the arc.

“It’s such an aberration for Darius to not make a 3-point field goal,” McKay said about the ASUN Title game. “We know better. We’ve seen him every day. (I’m) happy for him, happy for all he gets because of the humility and sacrifice he’s deposited into our program.”

Regardless of McGhee’s knack for sinking shots in the matchup, defensive savvy was required from the Flames to maintain their narrow lead. Every basket that fell through for Liberty, the Wildcats would respond, remaining within striking distance.

Photo taken by Ellie Bruss

Swift rebounding proved to be Liberty’s friend, with freshman guard Colin Porter coming down with five rebounds in the first half alone. Freshman forward Zach Cleveland was very productive off the bench, providing four points, three boards and two assists going into the locker room. The Flames managed to enter halftime on top, holding a seven-point advantage over Villanova.

The Wildcats worked to trim the deficit to just four points midway through the second, raising the heart rate of every Flames fan in Liberty Arena. McGhee, however, would break the silence and flaunt his quick release with a long-range 3 to extend the lead to 45-53 with just over five minutes remaining.

Shots from Porter and Rode hit the mark, allowing the Flames to slightly pull away from their opponent. Porter finished the night with 14 points and 2-5 from downtown, while Rode walked away with six points comprised of two 3-pointers.

The Wildcats, however, had no intention of going away. Villanova guard Mark Armstrong and forward Brandon Slater’s shots kept falling, as the two accounted for 31 of the team’s points. Forward Eric Dixon also had quite the night on the court, with 12 points and an astounding 13 rebounds to show for it.

Photo taken by Ellie Bruss

“You could tell they were never going to give up,” McKay said of Villanova. “They were never going to allow themselves to get too far behind because they have a ton of character, a ton of toughness, and so does our group.”

As the Wildcats continued to close in with just minutes remaining, the Flames fight showed through. Porter’s gritty play was evident, stealing the ball from Armstrong and taking it to the paint to draw a crucial foul.

The freshman’s eight points from the charity stripe proved critical in the Flames final number.

But with just 2:35 on the clock, the McGhee magic was back. The guard pulled the trigger from the corner to give his team three more, garnering a roar of approval from the crowd.

While the Flames had no field goals in the game’s final two minutes, the defense stood firm against the Wildcats scoring threats. As the buzzer sounded, Liberty earned a win over Villanova and a chance to keep its season alive.

“There will be 52 teams eliminated in the NCAA Tournament by Sunday,” McKay said. “There will be 16 eliminated by tomorrow in the NIT. That is 32 teams left after five days of competition. To be one of those teams is a privilege. We are going to enjoy this, and we are going to keep trying to get better.”

Liberty’s next opponent now lies in Madison, Wisconsin, as the Flames will fight with the Wisconsin Badgers to stay alive in the NIT. The game is expected to tip off on Sunday, March 19 with the time to be determined.

Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on Twitter

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