Men’s basketball NIT defeat
After an electrifying victory over a Big East opponent in the first round of the NIT, the Flames men’s basketball team traveled to Madison, Wisconsin, for a matchup with the Big 10’s Wisconsin Badgers. In a thrilling and heart-pounding forty minutes, the Flames fell to the Badgers 75-71 and were eliminated from the NIT.
“I have a great deal of respect for (Badgers Head Coach Greg) Guard, his staff and their basketball program,” Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “They have really good players and a really good team. We knew that this would be a tough challenge… but I’m proud of our group. We’re not the tallest and most athletic, but we have guys that love the game and love each other, and it’s an honor to coach them.”
The book has been closed on the Flames season, but they didn’t go without a fight. From the opening minutes of the game, it was clear that it would be a hard-fought battle. Wisconsin, who heavily relied on its size and slashing ability, took the fight right to the Flames. The Badgers tried and many times succeeded in taking advantage of the Flames’ smaller size, especially around the rim.
“I think our guys battled,” McKay said. “If you got good players down there and we have size disadvantage, but what makes them hard to guard is our perimeter shooting. You have to pay attention to it.”
The Flames’ perimeter shooting has certainly been a factor all season. Entering Sunday’s game, the Flames were 26th in the NCAA in 3-point percentage with a percentage of 37.55%. That statistic, paired with the Flames’ fourth-place position in the NCAA in 3s made per game with 10.5, is just one of the reasons Liberty has had such a good season on the offensive end.
Right from the opening tip, the Badgers drove the ball into the paint, with the opening bucket coming off a hook shot from junior center Steven Crowl. Crowl, who is listed as a true 7-footer, would go on to present tons of problems for the Flames, as would sophomore guard Chucky Hepburn.
“(The Badgers) have very unselfish players,” McKay said. “Crowl is terrific as a creator for others, and Hepburn had a great first half. He’s a tough guard, so their experience is warranted that they would play through some of the different combinations or coverages we had.”
The pairing of Hepburn and Crowl, along with senior forward Tyler Wahl, ended with a combined 57 points of the team’s 75. Hepburn, who set a new career high for himself with 27 points, was able to single-handedly keep the game close in the first half as he attacked the Flames’ smaller defenders time and time again.
The Flames were able to answer the Badgers’ paint presence with an offensive approach that used the threat of a 3-pointer to open up shooting lanes or an open shot. Flames senior guard Darius McGhee, who was discussed on the ESPN broadcast as “the best player in Liberty
history,” had another excellent day shooting the basketball. He ended with 31 points, four 3s and seven free throws.
McGhee may have been excellent and, at times, carried this team, but the loss would’ve been a blowout if not for Kyle Rode. Rode, a senior forward for the Flames, ended the day with 16 points and four 3s of the seven he took, making him the only Flame other than McGhee to have made a 3-pointer.
Like most basketball games, this one came down to the wire. With just 42 seconds remaining in the game, the Badgers were able to take the lead with a layup. Down one, the Flames walked down the floor and ran a play that worked perfectly until the shot didn’t fall.
“We thought they might help on Darius,” McKay said. “There’s a little hammer action on the backside, and they actually did a good job defending it. And Colin found (Rode), and I’ll take him shooting (that shot) every day. Matter of fact, it rolled around the rim. I don’t know, maybe Wisconsin has some ghost in there that tipped it out because (Venzant’s) tip almost went in too.”
“I think the best part about this program is, like on day one, you’re taught if it’s a great shot for you, we live with the result either way,” Rode said. “And we got a team and a staff that just empower us to have that mindset. So, 100% I’ll take (that shot) all day.”
After fouling the Badgers, the Flames got the ball back down two. McGhee did his best to tie the game back up, but a missed layup and some timely free throws from the Badgers would end the Flames’ hopes of being NIT champions.
“Yeah, just super grateful for how we responded all night,” Rode said. “We knew coming in they were going to be a tough team and love playing with these guys and sad it’s the last time we’ll be playing with this team, but just super grateful for the experience… and thought we did a really good job.”
Palsgrove is the asst. sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow him on Twitter