The Liberty men's basketball team began stateside play for the Cancun Challenge, Wednesday night, squaring off with ACC member Virginia Tech inside Cassell Coliseum. After a three-point margin at halftime, the Hokies began to create some more distance during the second half to take the contest, 73-63.
For the third straight game, senior forward Tomasz Gielo paced the Flames' offense, finishing with 13 points. Playing in just his third game after sitting out last season, redshirt freshman Ryan Kemrite made a statement, recording 11 points on 4-of-4 shooting (3-of-3 from the three-point arc). Despite being in foul trouble the majority of the night, junior guard Joe Retic rounded out Liberty's trio of double-digit scorers with 10 points.
Virginia Tech's Joey van Zegeren led all players with 17 points and 10 rebounds. Adam Smith and Devin Wilson finished with 13 points, apiece.
Liberty falls to 2-1 on the year, while Virginia Tech improves to 2-0. The Hokies now lead the all-time series, 14-3.
Virginia Tech shot 61.0 percent (25-of-41) for the contest and held the Flames to 42.9 percent (24-of-56). Virginia Tech widened the gap in the second half in large part to its 73.7 percent shooting (14-of-19) in the stanza.
The matchup featured a coaching connection, with Liberty head coach Dale Layer and Hokies skipper Buzz Williams coaching across from each other. Williams served on Layer's staff as an assistant and associate head coach at Colorado State (2000-04), while Layer was an assistant coach for Williams at Marquette (2008-09).
Liberty jumped out to an early lead thanks to a layup by James Johnson. The Hokies gained the advantage with an Adam Smith three-pointer. Virginia Tech remained in command until the 17:00 mark, when Gielo swished a three-pointer to make it 9-7, Liberty.
The Hokies went on a 6-0 run to lead by four. Liberty knotted the game at 13 apiece with a thunderous two-handed jam by James Johnson and a Kemrite layup. After another 6-0 run by the Hokies, a Kemrite three-pointer and a Peter Moller jumper pulled the Flames within one, 19-18, at 10:14.
Seven more unanswered points put the Hokies up by six. Liberty responded with a 6-0 burst of its own off treys by Gielo and Kemrite to tie the contest, 24-24, at 5:27.
Virginia Tech went up by as much as four during the closing minutes of the half. The Flames knotted the contest again, 28-28, courtesy of a David Andoh jumper and an acrobatic, catch-and-shoot layup from Andrew Smith. The Hokies closed out the period with a three-pointer by Justin Bibbs to take a 31-28 lead into the locker room at halftime.
Liberty shot 42.9 percent (12-of-28) from the field in the opening period, compared to 50.0 percent (11-of-22) for the Hokies.
Kemrite led Liberty at the half with eight points, while Adam Smith also had eight points for Virginia Tech. The Flames matched the Hokies on points in the paint (14-14) and from beyond the three-point arc (12-12). Virginia Tech held a slight edge on points off turnovers (15-11).
The Hokies took an eight-point advantage early in the second half. Kemrite continued to shine from downtown, sinking his third three-pointer at 13:40 to pull the Flames within five. Justin Bibbs responded on the other end 21 ticks later, draining a trey of his own, bolstering the Hokies lead back to eight, 47-39.
With Virginia Tech up by 12, Gielo nailed another three-pointer at 10:32. The Hokies answered with back-to-back dunks by Jalen Hudson and van Zegeren to extend the lead to 13, 57-44.
Liberty made it an eight-point game thanks to a Retic three-ball with 6:09 left. Malik Muller sank trey on the opposite end 17 seconds later to nullify the shot. Retic was not done though, as he hit another three-pointer with 5:04 remaining to trim the deficit to eight again. Johnson tacked on layup a minute later to make it 65-59. The Hokies did not allow the Flames to climb any closer, ultimately walking away with the 73-63 victory.
Liberty continues play in the Cancun Challenge on Saturday, squaring off against Miami (Ohio) on Saturday in Oxford, Ohio. Tipoff is slated for 3:30 p.m. --------- Photos by Dave Knachel