Home court defeat: Grand Canyon surges ahead of Liberty in final minutes, secure 69-64 win
The best of the Conference USA and WAC gathered in Liberty Arena Dec. 9 for a highly anticipated matchup of elite basketball programs. The Grand Canyon Antelopes, just four days removed from a 79-73 upset of the No. 25 San Diego State Aztecs, entered Lynchburg with both confidence and a healthy dose of fans donning the GCU purple.
The GCU fans would be the ones leaving Liberty Arena with a smile on their face, as the Antelopes came away with the victory in a 69-64, hard-fought game.
“That was a great atmosphere and a great college basketball game to be a part of … Not so much to be on the wrong side of,” Flames Head Coach Ritchie McKay said. “I know our guys were blessed and thankful for the opportunity to play against such a quality opponent and be in the arena, because we haven’t had a lot of practice with that.”
After the Antelopes came down with the opening tipoff, Liberty’s defense got to work early, forcing a turnover that sophomore forward Zach Cleveland turned into points.
Freshman guard Kaden Metheny came away with a steal on Grand Canyon’s next possession, and the guard would add three to the board moments later, stepping back and dropping one from downtown to send the sold-out Liberty Arena into a frenzy.
“(The crowd) makes a crazy difference, they have no idea. It was a great environment,” Cleveland said.
The Flames showed no hesitation when it came to defending the Antelopes’ offensive superstars, limiting Grand Canyon to just 6 points throughout the first 10 minutes of the game. Liberty then proceeded to go on a 12-0 run, propelled by its graduate forward Kyle Rode. Rode accounted for 5 of the points in the run, and he finished the half with 7.
But as swiftly as the 23-8 lead came on, it would dissipate. A series of turnovers and sloppy defensive play led the Antelopes to surge ahead to a 15-0 run, bringing the game within two.
A foul committed by senior guard Gabriel McKay saw the Flames’ lead vanish, as Collin Moore evened the score at 26 apiece with a pair of points from the charity stripe.
A three-pointer from Gabe McGlothan with just one minute remaining gave all the energy to the Antelopes. Fighting to regain his team’s lead, Metheny let it fire, draining a buzzer-beater to tie the game at 32 heading into the half.
“Not many teams get shook by a double-digit deficit,” McKay said. “My message to our group (at halftime) was that it’s a long game, stay in it, let’s keep trying to execute what we do and taking advantage of what the defense is giving us.”
Knowing the second-half performance it would take to surmount Grand Canyon, the Flames and Cleveland immediately got to work. After a quick three from McGlothan, Cleveland threw down a pair of dunks that injected the arena with life.
Liberty then went on a 14-2 run, headlined by a pair from downtown by Metheny and Rode. McGlothan brought the run to an end with a jumper, but the Flames still found themselves holding a 50-44 lead with just 10 minutes to play.
Ray Harrison initiated the effort for the Antelopes to claw back, draining a three that was followed by field goals from McGlothan and Grant-Foster that gave Grand Canyon a one-point advantage over Liberty, 51-50.
While the Antelopes’ offense got hot, Liberty’s shots simply weren’t falling. With three minutes remaining, Grand Canyon had a six-point advantage over the Flames, with no signs of slowing.
“(Grand Canyon) has some long guards, so it made shots a little more difficult,” Metheny said. “But we were getting what we wanted, shots just weren’t going in … If we just kept hitting our shots like (we did in the first half), the game could have gone a lot different.”
Liberty had three crucial opportunities from the free throw line in the game’s final minutes, but missed all three of its shots. A layup from a driving Porter, however, put his team back within striking range. Another layup from Porter tipped in by Robinson brought the deficit to one point — the closest the Flames would get the remainder of the contest.
“Those are the breaks of the game. We miss three free throws, we go 6-for-25 (from three),” McKay said. “(Grand Canyon is) a hard guard. We spent so much energy on the defensive end trying to guard their bounce and their individual playmakers.”
A crucial missed jumper and free throw from Porter set up Grand Canyon to stretch its lead and take the game, 69-64. Porter ended the day with 12 points, second to Metheny, who had 14.
“We know what we’re capable of, so we’re not gonna let this one get us down,” Metheny said. “It’s early in the season — December — but we don’t lose at home, I know that. I know this is my first year here, but I know that we’ve got to protect home court.”
The Flames will be back on their own hardwood Wednesday, Dec. 13, welcoming the Tennessee State Tigers for an 8 p.m. tipoff.
Cory is the sports editor for the Liberty Champion. Follow her on X