The Lipscomb Bisons had a six point lead at the first half under four-minute media timeout Sunday. Up 28-22, Head Coach Casey Alexander’s words weren’t caught on camera, but they were unmistakable from 15 feet away. “They’re soft, they play soft…” he told his team as they walked toward the bench. For all of the niceties and mutual admiration speak between Coach Alexander and Coach McKay over the course of this season, there was a noticeable disdain in that statement.
The intensity was only just beginning to ramp up, and at one point in the second half after Scottie James took a shot to the jaw, the two benches erupted. The usually calm Ritchie McKay had to be momentarily restrained. All of this before the now infamous Rob Marberry shoulder dip into Scottie James oversell moment that went viral. No matter how Sunday’s game finished, a rivalry was being born.
Some folks openly wondered whether Liberty’s move from the very familiar Big South to the ASUN would result in a lack of rivals for the Flames. Most felt it would take time for such relationships between institutions to develop. Familiarity, is what breeds contempt after all. Who knew familiarity would mean just three games?
Perhaps the way Lipscomb walked into the Vines Center in January and humbled Coach McKay’s squad also put a chip on the Flames’ shoulders. The return bout in February meant revenge for Liberty, but also assured that if there were a rubber match between the top two teams in the ASUN, it would be tense. So when Sunday’s tournament final featured 18 second half lead changes, several replay reviews, shouting matches, and over 5,000 screaming fans, the temperature hit a boiling point.
Liberty fans were accusing Lipscomb players of whining to the refs and being dirty. Lipscomb students were claiming that Liberty players were floppers and soft. No one from either side, not the players, the coaches, nor the fans seemed to like each other much by Sunday evening. The way Georgie’s 3-pointer in the final moments cut the heart out of Lipscomb’s season on their home floor, the feeling’s unlikely to fade soon. The intensity of these moments, where the stakes are so high, solidifies bad feelings and cements rivalries.
Whether this nascent rivalry has long term staying power remains to be seen. It will take more high-stakes contests, more nail-biting finishes to fuel the disdain. Coaching staffs change, players graduate. We already know that Lipscomb’s trio of Garrison Mathews, Rob Marberry, and Eli Pepper will all be gone the next time the Flames and Bisons meet on the hardwood. However, neither team will have forgotten the intensity of March 10, 2019, and those feelings will no doubt come to the surface quickly when these teams see each other again.
So don’t worry about the conference change Liberty fans. The Flames have a rival, and its name is Lipscomb. The best part is, for now, Liberty holds the upper hand. Hopefully the Bisons enjoy watching the Big Dance from home this year.