Way back on November 16th, Liberty hit the road for the first Division I game and first road game of the season to take on Kent State. Due to various travel delays, the Flames did not get into Ohio until about 4 a.m. on the day of the game. Despite that, Liberty seized control of the contest, leading by as many as 16, and cruised to a nice win to open the season at 3-0, the first time the Flames had done that since 1999.
At that moment, you knew this team had the chance to be special.
Looking back on it, that game really became the microcosm of the season. The Flames were led by 5 double figure scorers and 6 that scored 9 or more while shooting over 50% from the field. It was a team effort despite difficult circumstances that pulled off a road win against a team that would go on to win 22 games.
That same formula showed up for Coach McKay’s team time and time again throughout the season.
It happened just a couple of weeks later when Darius McGhee scored 18 points as the team beat Navy on the road by 18.
Then, the Flames blitzed defending (and eventual repeat) Sun Belt champ Georgia State in the Vines Center, treating the home crowd to a glimpse into what the season would bring. Liberty led by as many as 27 points as the outcome was never in doubt.
There were near misses in close, competitive games against Vanderbilt, Georgetown, and Alabama. The Hoyas and Crimson Tide lived most of the season on the bubble, just missing the tournament, and if Darius Garland didn’t suffer a season-ending knee injury in the Commodores next game, they would have been in the mix in the SEC, as well.
And who could forget Saturday, December 29th? Liberty announced its presence on a national stage for the first time, defeating UCLA, 73-58, behind 21 points from Caleb Homesley. An 18-4 run at the end of the first half that stretched into the opening minutes of the 2nd sent Steve Alford out of Pauley Pavilion for the final time and sent Bill Walton into a frenzy.
The Flames followed that up with a statement to their new conference in the ASUN opener, defeating FGCU in Fort Myers by 18 behind the true freshman McGhee who had 18 points on 6-of-8 shooting from 3.
That win would spark a 7-0 start to conference play before the Flames met Lipscomb for the first time. Both teams were 7-0 and the game drew national attention from all the major college basketball writers. The Bisons were the better team that night, McKay shouldered the blame, and the team responded to the setback.
There were close conference wins at home, some of them in front of electric atmospheres, as the Vines Center was jumping for the first time in a decade. Liberty set a school Division I record with 16 wins at home, finishing the season 16-1 in front of nearly 3,000 fans per game.
Liberty got revenge on February 13th in Nashville, letting Lipscomb know the conference race was still very much in question. After both teams slipped up down the stretch, they would get through the other challengers standing in the way of the rubber match.
We all remember the classic in Allen Arena on ESPN in front of a record crowd with a championship and NCAA Tournament appearance on the line. The Flames got it done down the stretch with clutch shots and key stops on defense sending the program to its 4th ever NCAA Tournament appearance.
It wasn’t a surprise to any of us that it happened, but this wasn’t supposed to be our year. Lipscomb was the defending champs. They had all the seniors. We were one year away.
But this team was special.
Counting back to the win over UCLA, the Flames finished the season 19-3 including the biggest win in school history, the first round upset of Mississippi State. Caleb Homesley was special that night. His 30-point performance will always be remembered as one of the greatest performances in Liberty history. Senior Lovell Cabbil would hit the huge 3 in the waning moments to seal the win.
As is the case for all but 1 team, the season ended with disappointment, losing to Virginia Tech in the round of 32. It was a game that the Flames could have won, competing until the final horn, but it wasn’t meant to be. The shots stopped falling and the run was over.
As Coach McKay said afterward, “Don’t be sad because it ended, be happy because it happened.”