Coach McKay was candidly honest when he met with the media Friday afternoon, his first media session since Liberty’s gut-wrenching loss Tuesday night against Lipscomb.
After taking Wednesday off, McKay and his team practiced and watched film for nearly 4 hours Thursday. During the film session, he showed his players the following clip from legendary UCONN women’s basketball coach and 11-time national champion Geno Auriemma:
This is why @UConnWBB is consistently the best team in the nation. If you’re trying to be the best, you have to work like the best. Wise words yesterday from Head Coach, Geno Auriemma (@GenoAjustsayin) pic.twitter.com/yB27UJktCx
— UCTV Sports (@UCTVSports) March 6, 2018
“I shared with our guys that I got a D,” McKay said of his performance for the Lipscomb game. “I got caught up in the scoreboard-based identity that most coaches do. I mean here’s a chance for our program to get on the national map. I probably heard from at least 4 or 5 national writers about the significance, the importance of this game and where our program is.”
The game did receive a significant amount of media attention compared to most Liberty regular season games. We stated that it may have been the most anticipated regular season game in school history. There was an electric atmosphere and two undefeated, top 50 teams from a mid-major conference. The build-up was warranted. One team showed up and left Lynchburg with an emphatic, statement-making win. While our beloved Flames were punched in the gut.
“The hope and the desire to want to be a top 40 program led me to think about things that weren’t what we do everyday,” McKay continued. “So, I got a D, and I told them that I’m not going to get a D again. I’m going to pursue an A, and pursuing an A to me, means staying in our lane. We have to be committed every day to the details of our defense, what we do offensively, and how we’ve recruited in order to be the program that we want to be. That means controlling the controllables, and the controllables for me are manufacturing the skillset and the things necessary that lead to an opportunity to succeed. I didn’t do a good job of executing that and didn’t get a good grade for the Lipscomb game.”
Despite the loss, the Flames are still off to one of the program’s best ever starts and just two wins away from a 3rd consecutive 20-win season. Liberty only had five 20-win seasons prior to McKay returning as head coach in 2015. He currently owns half of the program’s 20-win seasons.
“I’m always pursuing excellence,” he said. “It’s a great strength, but it’s a great weakness too. It’s what led to the seduction of having your program arrive nationally. At 53, I’m not about that anymore. I want to be about doing what I’m called to do. I know that’s counter-cultural to this profession, but doing what I’m called to do has got to be more important than the outcome on the board.”
He described his emotions this week since the Lipscomb loss as being frustrated, disappointed, regretful, and humbled.
“The biggest depictions of my feelings were, we’ve got so many people there, and to fall flat on your face is humbling,” said the Flames’ 4th year head coach. “But if I’m going to do this, I’m not exempt from making sure I’m doing it for the right identity and being responsible for the young men that God’s given me the responsibility. To steward or to shepherd into their lives is an incredible privilege.”
“I’m not going to get seduced again. I’m going to realize that whatever our record is, that’s great, but the dudes that sit in these chairs, they are phenomenal win or loss. I hope that we can keep living out of that instead of thinking, ‘Man we got blown out by a team in our league.’ That’s not who we are.”
As tough of a loss as it was, it was a mid-season game played in January. Nothing has been decided. There’s still plenty of basketball to be played. How McKay and his players respond will ultimately determine whether this season will be remembered as a success or not.
“What I’m concerned about the most is us getting back to playing with a joy and an appreciation for the opportunity that we get, and doing it in such a way that we own the hard, little things that lead to winning.”
Many teams have used mid-season losses like the one the Flames suffered Tuesday night to springboard to a new level of success. McKay was on the sidelines when Virginia was humiliated by Tennessee in Tony Bennett’s 5th season as head coach. The Cavaliers lost by 35 in late December to a team that barely snuck into the NCAA Tournament later that season. Bennett and McKay used that loss to propel Virginia to win 21 of 24 games following the Tennessee game, including an ACC regular season and tournament title and advancing the program’s first sweet 16 appearance in nearly 20 years. The team that just beat the Flames, Lipscomb, lost by 18 against a middle of the pack Jacksonville early in conference play last year. The Bisons have responded to win 20 of 21 ASUN games, a streak that is still active.
“We went 37 days without losing,” said McKay “When’s the last time that’s happened? It’s human nature to start feeling like, ‘Ok, we’ve gotten to where we want to get.’ Coach Dick Bennett used to always say, ‘Sometimes it takes a loss to promote learning.'”