Liberty will advance to the ASUN Conference Championship game, marking the first time in program history the Flames have ever made consecutive conference championship games. Liberty got the better of North Florida, 71-63, on Thursday night in the semifinals.
Elijah Cuffee started the game with a bang as he scored a bucket on each of the Flames’ opening two possessions and recorded a steal on the Ospreys’ first possession. Cuffee then hit a corner triple as he scored the team’s first 7 points in the opening 140 seconds. Liberty would jump out to an early 8-2 lead following a Caleb Homesley free throw.
That was the largest the Flames’ lead would get in the opening minutes as North Florida settled in offensively, playing at their pace, and connecting on 3-of-7 from 3. Garrett Sams, who has been averaging 20 points per game in the 3 games since Horchler was dismissed from the team, hit his 2nd three pointer of the early action giving the Ospreys their first lead of the game at 17-16.
The teams would exchange buckets and the lead over the next over the next several minutes. Both teams shot it extremely well through the first 12 minutes of the game, but they combined to 9 straight buckets over a 3 minute span heading into the under 8 media timeout at 5:23 left in the half as Liberty led 23-22.
The Flames would grab some breathing room after Myo Baxter-Bell drew a charge on Wajid Aminu, the ASUN’s Defensive Player of the Year 2nd foul of the first half. In the next 54 seconds, Liberty would go on a quick 5-0 spark to push the lead to 28-22. It was an extended 9-0 run over more than 5 minutes of game action.
Scottie James checked in with 3:14 left in the first half, and he was just a man possessed the closing minutes of the half. He scored 7 points while drawing several fouls, putting both Aminu and his back-up, Ezekiel Balogun in foul trouble. Aminu went to the bench with 2 fouls while Balogun picked up his 2nd and 3rd foul. Scottie was just 2-for-6 from the free throw line, his only negative stat in the opening half, but he finished with 12 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists while drawing 4 fouls.
The birds of trey stayed in the game with 6 made three pointers on 14 first half attempts while Liberty dominated the paint, 24-8.
Liberty opened the 2nd half trying to get some separation from UNF, pushing the lead to as many as 7 in the opening minutes, but the Ospreys connected on 4 of their first 5 second half triples to stay within striking distance. Meanwhile, the Flames continued to make it a point of emphasis to get the ball to Scottie James in the paint, as he scored 4 early 2nd half points.
Garrett Sams continued to keep UNF in this one. Liberty pushed the lead to 8 with just over 12 minutes left to play and the crowd was brought to life following an Elijah Cuffee three pointer. Sams, who had just picked up his 3rd foul, was brought back off the bench by Coach Driscoll after Liberty had knocked the ball out of bounds. Sams immediately got in the paint and scored an old-fashioned 3 pointer to cut the lead to 5 and quiet the crowd.
It felt like Liberty kept getting one big bucket away from taking complete control of the game but the Flames couldn’t quite deliver that punch. The game would get to 8 or 9 points before North Florida, namely Garrett Sams, would come back and cut the Liberty lead to 5 or less.
Lovell Cabbil went down after driving to the bucket and falling awkwardly to the floor. He immediately grabbed his left knee, and on the replay you could see his leg bend backwards. At that time, Liberty led 59-55 with 4:42 to play.
Liberty pushed the lead to 6 and a Darius McGhee steal gave the Flames the ball with 2 minutes left and a chance to seize control of the game. As the shot clock ran down, Caleb Homesley missed a 3-pointer from the top of the arc, but Scottie James grabbed a huge offensive rebound, got fouled, and calmly went to the line where he drained both ends of the 1-and-1. He was just 2-of-6 from the free throw line on the night before those.
Sams quickly answered with a 3 pointer to cut the Liberty lead to 5 with 1:23 to play. Scottie James scored another bucket 25 seconds later, and Liberty would remain in control down the stretch taking care of business at the free throw line.
Liberty dominated the paint, 40-16, while UNF made 48.1% of its three pointers.
Scottie James finished the game with 24 points (season-high) and 9 rebounds. He was 1-of-5 from the free throw line before making 5 straight, including 4 in the final 90 seconds.
Caleb Homesley finished with 13 points and 7 rebounds while Elijah Cuffee had 10 points.
Sams finished with 22 points on 6-of-11 from 3.
UNF had 16 turnovers compared to Liberty’s 6. The Flames led in points off turnovers, 18-7.
North Florida head coach Matt Driscoll: “We’ve got no seniors. Obviously, (Liberty) has a lot of guys that are coming back as well too. I could see this becoming a nice little battle quickly between these two teams.”
North Florida head coach Matt Driscoll on his embrace with Lovell Cabbil after the game: “I asked him, are you okay, and he said, ‘Yeah, just scared, he tweaked me.’ Then I prayed for him, and I just asked God to continue to bring healing for him so he can perform on Sunday with the talents and treasures that he’s been given.”
North Florida guard Garrett Sams on the win over Liberty two weeks ago: “We didn’t take a lot from it because we knew it would be a completely different game, playing in the tournament and at their place. So, we knew it would be a lot more energy. We just kept doing what we were doing, and they made more plays than us down the stretch.”
North Florida forward Wajid Aminu on Scottie James: “He’s a good player. He knows how to get to his spot where he’s able to score. I was trying not to foul and probably that shouldn’t have been the right mindset going in guarding him. He’s a good player, and he’s able to get to his spot and once he gets to his spot its hard to stop him.”
Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay: “It was a really hard fought college basketball game. I never felt comfortable, even though we led for a lot of the game, I never felt comfortable because of the way they shoot the ball, how well coached they are, and the confidence that they’re playing with. There’s a reason they had won 7 in a row. If the league would have started when they lost to Lipscomb, they’d be in first place and Lipscomb and us would be looking up at them.”
Liberty forward Scottie James: “I just let the game flow. Our guards did a great job feeding the ball inside. I tried to get to my spot and go from there.”
Liberty guard Caleb Homesley: “We knew it was going to be a hard game coming in. They run a lot of ball screen action so it really has the guards and the bigs on their toes at all times. They have a pretty good presence on the inside with Aminu.”
In Liberty’s first season in the conference, the Flames advance to the conference championship game. Liberty will head back to Nashville to take on the Bisons. The game is a 3 p.m. Eastern tip and will be televised on ESPN.