For the first time since 2008 and 2009, the Flames have advanced to the semifinals of the conference tournament for a 2nd straight season. 2-seed Liberty (26-6, 14-2) will face 3-seed North Florida (16-16, 9-7) Thursday night at 7p.m. in the Vines Center in one ASUN semifinal. With a win, the Flames will advance to a conference championship game for the 2nd straight year which would be a program first.
The Ospreys are the hottest team in the league, having won 7 straight including a 76-66 win Monday night over North Alabama in the quarterfinals. Prior to their 7-game win streak, UNF had dropped 6 straight to fall to 3-7 in conference play, flirting with the bottom of the standings. During their current winning streak, the Ospreys have won 3 away from home and knocked off the Flames at home less than two weeks ago.
In that game, Liberty led by 13 points with just over 8 minutes left to play before North Florida went on a 23-4 run to seize control of the game in the closing minutes. UNF utilized 20 points on 6-of-9 shooting from 3 by junior wing Garrett Sams. ASUN Defensive Player of the Year and 2nd-team all-conference selection Wajid Aminu dominated in the post by scoring 19 points, while also grabbing 8 rebounds and blocking 3 shots. North Florida shot 45.8% from 3 for the game in the win.
True freshman big man Carter Hendricksen also made his presence known in the Ospreys win over the Flames, as he finished with 13 points and 6 rebounds. Hendricksen is from Lexington, Kentucky where he attended Lexington Christian Academy and was teammates with Liberty signee Kyle Rode.
Hendricksen has started the past 3 games in the place of preseason all-conference forward Noah Horchler. Horchler was dismissed from the program for a violation of team policy just prior to the teams’ previous meeting a couple weeks ago. Horchler was on his way to being an all-conference selection as he averaged 16 points and 9.3 rebounds this season.
Since his dismissal, North Florida hasn’t missed a beat, getting increased production from Hendricksen, Sams, and Aminu. In the 3 games without Horchler, Hendricksen has increased his production from an average of 4 points and 4 rebounds per game to 15 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Sams has averaged 20.3 points and 9 rebounds per game while shooting 50% from 3-point range and Aminu is averaging 14.3 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks per game with Horchler out of the lineup. These numbers are all up significantly from their season production prior to Horchler’s absence.
In the first meeting back in January in Lynchburg, the visiting team again got out to an early lead, as the Ospreys led by as many as 8 points in the first half and took a 3-point lead into the locker room. Liberty would respond after the break, outscoring UNF by 9 points in the final 20 minutes and pulling out a 70-64 win behind 18 points from Scottie James. Against North Florida this season, ASUN first-team selection James is averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game while his fellow first-teamer Caleb Homesley is averaging 15.5 points and 6 rebounds.
Darius McGhee has struggled from the floor against the Ospreys, shooting just 1-for-13 from the field and 1-for-10 from 3. Despite struggling from 3 recently, McGhee has found a way to make plays, including noticeable improvements in his on ball defense. Coach McKay is confident his freshman can make an impact Thursday.
“He’s been getting better and better,” McKay said of McGhee’s defense. “That’s allowed him to be on the floor more even though he hasn’t shot it nearly as well as he’s capable of, but I’m not worried about Darius McGhee. I watched him last summer go 1-for-19 in his first 3 games. He ended up shooting 52% from 3 over the course of the summer. He’s just got to see it go in, and once he does that’s just another piece that would make our offense that much more difficult to defend.”
Both games have been incredibly competitive, with Liberty leading for 40:22 and UNF holding the lead for 29:45 of the 80 minutes the teams’ have faced off. The first 1,000 students will get free admission to Thursday night’s game, as it promises to be another great atmosphere inside the Vines Center.
“It’s exciting,” Scottie James said of the support and playing at home. “We love the support. We’re hoping we get a really good crowd on Thursday. We appreciate them.”
Despite getting snubbed from serious consideration for ASUN Defensive Player of the Year and all-ASUN first or second team, Lovell Cabbil is a key piece to Liberty’s championship dreams. Numerous times this season, he has completely taken the opposing team’s best perimeter scoring out of the game. He did so Monday, shutting down JD Notae, and he was very special in both games against NJIT’s Zach Cooks.
“Lovell is a great two-way player, one of the best in the region,” McKay said of his 1,000 point senior. “Offensively, he really puts a lot of pressure on the defense because he can score at all 3 levels, but he’s also capable of finding the open man. Defensively, he takes on any challenge we give him. He has quickness, he has strength, he has that Virginia ability to slide in front of your man. He’s a very, very integral part of building our program and the growth we’ve experienced.”
On Monday night against 6-seed North Alabama, the Ospreys were able to pull away down the final few minutes after a closely contested game throughout the first 30+ minutes. No team led by more than 5 points in the first half, and the lead was at just 3 for UNF with 8 minutes left in the game. With the win, North Florida advances to the semifinals for the 5th straight season. During that stretch, they’ve reached the finals twice, losing to FGCU in 2017 and winning the championship in 2015.
In Thursday night’s other semifinal, 1-seed Lipscomb will play host to 5-seed NJIT in a game scheduled for an 8 p.m. tip. The Bisons won each of the previous two meetings this season, including a narrow 4-point win last Monday in Nashville. Lipscomb is looking to advance to its 2nd straight ASUN Championship game and defend its 2018 title. Meanwhile, the Highlanders picked up its first ever ASUN Tournament victory by knocking off FGCU Monday night.
The two winners of Thursday night’s action will advance to the ASUN Tournament Championship game on Sunday at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN and hosted by the highest remaining seed.