LYNCHBURG, Va. (AP) — Liberty is headed to the NCAA Tournament for the second year in a row, but there is a big difference between them making it last year and doing it again.
“Any time you have a target on your back or you’re the team that’s expected to win, it’s hard,” coach Ritchie McKay said after the Flames took command with a long first-half run and beat Lipscomb 73-57 in the ASUN championship Sunday.
“It’s hard to operate, navigate those expectations,” said McKay, whose team was picked to win the league. “Our group showed its emotional maturity. This afternoon was just a reflection of the growth that occurred in our guys.”
Caleb Homesley and Elijah Cuffee each scored 16 points and Darius McGhee had 13, helping the Flames earn their fifth NCAA Tournament bid.
For Cuffee, it was a season high, and his first game in double figures since he scored 11 points in a blowout win against Kennesaw State on Jan. 30.
“I was so excited for him,” Homesley said. “He needed that game. He really did, especially for it to be that high caliber of a game.”
After close wins in the tournament quarterfinals and semifinals, Homesley said the key for the Flames was focusing on having a good time.
“The last two games, they were close, they were hard-fought and I felt like we had a little bit of fun, but we didn’t match our full potential,” he said. “I told them tonight, let’s just go out there, let’s just have fun and we’ll win the gme.”
The Flames (30-4) set a school record for victories in a season. They also avenged a 77-71 loss at Lipscomb to finish the regular season.
“I thought they were fantastic today. We hit a buzzsaw for sure. … They were locked in and ready to go,” first-year Bisons coach Lennie Acuff said.
Ahsan Asadullah scored 22 and grabbed nine rebounds despite foul trouble for the Bisons (16-16), and Andrew Fleming scored 15. It was Lipscomb’s third consecutive championship appearance and second straight loss to Liberty.
The Flames led 16-14 when Homesley’s layup with 11 minutes left in the first half sparked a 29-12 run the rest of the half. Homesley scored 12 in the burst, including the first seven, and Cuffee had eight of his 10 in the half.
“They were making everything they took for awhile,” Acuff said.
Trailing 45-26 at the half, Lipscomb scored the first seven points of the second half as the Flames missed their first seven shots, but McGhee settled them with back-to-back 3-pointers and they stayed comfortably ahead therafter.
“That was kind of it,” Acuff said of McGhee’s 3-pointers, which made it 51-35.
“In my mind I was just focused on getting a great shot, whether it was me or somebody else,” McGhee said. “Luckily I just came up with both of those shots.”
The result ensured it was the Flames’ final game in the Vines Center after 30 years. The school is building a 4,000- to 4,500-seat arena next door that will open next season, and the crowd of 7,728 that roared all game long charged out onto the court as the final horn sounded.
Lipscomb: The Bisons did themselves in in the first half with nine turnovers that the Flames turned into 18 points. That left them with a 16-point disadvantage off miscues since the Flames turned it over just twice, leading to two points. Liberty finished with a 20-7 edge on points of turnovers.
Liberty: The Flames won their first game in the NCAA Tournament last season and will be dangerous again this year. Their defense, patterned after Virginia’s Pack Line, finished second nationally to the Cavaliers, allowing just 53.7 points. They shot 53.8% (28-52) and 40.7% on 3-pointers, making 11 of 27 on Sunday.
Lipscomb will wait to see if a postseason bid is forthcoming.
Liberty is heading to the NCAA Tournament.
For more AP college basketball coverage: https://apnews.com/Collegebasketball and http://twitter.com/AP_Top25