After the most successful regular season in school history, Liberty now turns its attention to the postseason, beginning Monday night when the 2-seed Flames (25-6, 14-2) host 7-seed Jacksonville (12-19, 5-11) in the ASUN quarterfinals.
“Every game we’ve kinda had the next game, next play mentality,” Liberty forward Scottie James said. “We know that the games in the past don’t affect the games in the future. So, we just got to keep getting better every day.”
While the regular season title is an impressive accomplishment and will remembered for years to come, this week is when the Flames can turn dreams into realities by winning 3 straight games to advance to the program’s 4th ever NCAA Tournament.
Playing in its 3rd tournament championship following a regular season title, Liberty is 5-1 all-time in conference tournament games after winning the regular season title. In 1997, the Flames defeated Winthrop and Radford before losing to 4-seed Charleston Southern in the Big South Tournament Championship game. In 2004, Liberty swept Charleston Southern, Coastal Carolina, and High Point to win the Big South Tournament.
Jacksonville enters the ASUN Tournament having lost 4 straight games and also losing both regular season games to the Flames. The Dolphins lost 6 ASUN games this season that were decided either in overtime or by 4 points or less, so their league record might be a bit deceiving.
“Match-ups are significant when you get into postseason,” said McKay. “I think Jacksonville is a hard match-up for anyone, just look at their scores. I think we have the maturity to realize this is a lose and you’re out game that we really need to own.”
In the first meeting between the two schools this season, on January 12th in Lynchburg, the Flames led throughout and won, 69-53, but the game was very competitive through the first 30 minutes of action. In the rematch, on January 27th in Swisher Gym, the Dolphins seized control of the action in the 2nd half, taking a 10 point lead with just under 11 minutes left in the game. That was the largest deficit Liberty faced in conference play this season other than the first meeting with Lipscomb.
“We really respect Jacksonville,” Coach McKay said. “We’re not naive. We realize the 80 minutes we had with them were 80 really hard minutes. Throw that number 7 seed and number 2 seed out the window, this is Liberty versus Jacksonville for a chance to advance and it will be hard fought. Anyone that doesn’t pay attention to it or doesn’t follow the ASUN is going to look at their seed and think, ‘Oh, move Liberty to the next round.’ That’s crazy talk, it just does not happen that way.”
Reigning ASUN Freshman of the Year, JD Notae, paces the way for Jacksonville, as the 6’2″ sophomore guard is averaging 15.9 points, 6.2 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. Against Liberty, he averaged 13.5 points, 5 rebounds, and 2 assists.
“Just try to make him uncomfortable,” Lovell Cabbil said of trying to slow down Notae. “He can score many different ways. Within their offense, he’s told to score, so he has a lot of opportunities, has a green light to shoot whenever he wants to. So, I’m just going to have to make him uncomfortable, and then hope the other 4 guys on the court have my back in the process.”
The Flames are concentrating on the Dolphins, and not worrying about what comes next.
“The coaches have been good at keeping us level-headed, knowing that this is a new season,” Caleb Homesley said. We’ve got to play the first 40 minutes, and not worry about the next game or who we’re playing next because it’s all Jacksonville that we have to be worried about. We’ve just got to play each game like it’s our last.”
Liberty is 15-2 since Christmas and hopes to continue its hot play into the postseason. The Flames finished with 4 of its final 5 games away from home, including games against 3 of the top 5 seeds in the ASUN Tournament. McKay led his team to a 4-1 mark down that stretch to clinch a share of the regular season title.
“We were so close last year,” Cabbil said as he thought back to last season’s heartbreaking loss to Radford in the Big South Tournament final. “For me, I’m going to go out, have fun, be confident, and just try to lead us as best as I can to get to the NCAA tournament.”