Stepping back into conference play, Saturday, Liberty hosted Charleston Southern inside the Randolph College Physical Education Center, dropping the contest, 81-76.
After taking a six-point lead at halftime, the Buccaneers pulled away with a 14-4 run in the middle of the second half. Liberty tried to erase an 11-point deficit with two minutes left, but Charleston Southern managed to hold off the Flames late surge for the victory.
Liberty falls to 5-10 overall and 0-3 in Big South play. Charleston Southern remains undefeated in conference action (3-0) and moves to 9-4 on the year. The Flames still hold the advantage in the all-time series, 31-21.
Jesse Sanders led Liberty with 20 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists. Saah Nimley posted a game-high 23 points for the Buccaneers, while Kelvin Martin finished with 16 points and 12 boards.
The Buccaneers attempted to create an early cushion in the open minutes, taking a 6-1 lead off baskets by Mathiang Muo and Arlon Harper. The Flames fans in attendance came to life at 17:47, as Antwan Burrus netted Liberty's first field goal, sparking a 9-0 Liberty run. Tavares Speaks capped off the burst at 16:18, sinking a jumper to give the Flames a 10-6 advantage.
With Liberty still holding a four-point edge, John Caleb Sanders extended the Flames' advantage to seven at 13:36. The Sugar Land, Texas native received a pass from his older brother Jesse Sanders and proceeded to knock down a trey, making it, 17-10.
Utilizing defensive pressure, Charleston Southern erased the deficit over the next 2:50. Kelvin Martin cut the Liberty lead to two with a fast break layup off a steal. Eight seconds later, Jeremy Sexton picked up another steal for the Buccaneers and was fouled on the play. Sexton capitalized on both foul shots, knotting the game, 19-19, at 10:46.
Charleston Southern reclaimed the lead at 8:51, courtesy of a Muo three-pointer. After Sheldon Stickland tacked on a free throw, Andrew Smith tied the game at 27, on a reverse layup with 7:51 on the clock.
Jesse Sanders helped Liberty regained the lead with another layup 42 ticks later. Charleston Southern ended the lead exchange by going on an 8-0 run, provided on back-to-back Muo three-pointers and a fast break layup by Harper. The Buccaneers' surge gave the visitors a 35-29 lead with 5:40 remaining in the opening half.
With Charleston Southern holding a five-point advantage, John Caleb Sanders cut the deficit to a pair, 38-36, with a three-pointer at 3:35. Unfortunately for the Flames, they were unable to climb any closer before the end of the period, allowing the Buccaneers to carry a 44-38 lead into the locker room, 44-38.
Charleston Southern shot 50.0 percent in the first half, hitting 16-of-32 shots. Liberty concluded the period with 45.5 percent, connecting on 15-of-33 attempts. The Buccaneers held the advantage on points in the paint, outscoring the Flames, 22-18.
Muo led Charleston Southern with 13 points at halftime, followed by Martin, who chipped in 10 tallies and seven rebounds. Burrus paced the Flames with 11 points. Jesse Sanders concluded the stanza with nine points and six assists.
In the second half, David Minaya gave the Flames an energy boost, scoring Liberty's first six points of the half. Tavares Speaks made it a two-point game with a layup at 16:41. Thirty three seconds later, John Caleb Sanders put the Flames within one with a foul shot, 48-47.
Charleston Southern created a four-point bulge thanks to a Harper three-pointer at 15:51. Minaya continued to find the mark, putting up six more points over the next 4:12. The senior nailed a jumper at 11:39, moving the Flames within two, 57-55.
The Buccaneers began to pull away, outscoring the Flames, 14-4, over the ensuing 6:48. With seconds left on the shot clock, Muo put down a jumper that gave the visitors an 11-point lead. John Caleb Sanders gave Liberty its first field goal in nearly five minutes, laying it in to cut the deficit to nine, 71-62, at 4:36.
Charleston Southern led by 11, 76-65, with 2:01 left, when the Flames began to mount a late comeback. Liberty outscored the Buccaneers, 6-1, over the next 1:30. Jesse Sanders made it a four-point game, sinking two free throws with 31 seconds left. However, Liberty was unable to climb any closer, en route to the 81-76 final score.
Liberty shot 44.4 percent for the contest, hitting 28-of-63 shots. The Buccaneers finished with 48.1 percent shooting (26-of-54).
Along with Jesse Sanders' second 20-point performance of the season, four other Flames finished in double-digit scoring figures --Minaya (16), Burrus (13), John Caleb Sanders (11) and Tavares Speaks (10). Minaya posted all 16 of his tallies in the second half.
The Buccaneers travel to High Point on Monday for a clash with the Panthers at 7 p.m.
Liberty returns to the Vines Center on Monday to host Presbyterian College. Tipoff is slated for 7 p.m.