A lot has transpired since March 4, 2018 when Liberty and Radford last met. That game was for the Big South Championship. It was Liberty’s last ever game as a member of the Big South.
We all remember what transpired that day and how it made us feel. You remember, when Carlik Jones hit that game-winning three-pointer as time expired, lifting the Highlanders to the 55-52 win.
Remember that pit in your stomach? This was how Ritchie McKay walked off the court that day. With his head down and a look of heartbreak on his face as he was consoled by his police escort.
That’s how we all felt. And Liberty used that feeling for motivation in the offseason. The Flames are 31-8 since that loss, advancing to the CIT semifinals, then taking the ASUN by storm and advancing to the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 last year.
There are still plenty of familiar faces that will suit up for Liberty in those brand new uniforms Friday night. Myo Baxter-Bell, Elijah Cuffee, Caleb Homesley, Scottie James, Keegan McDowell, Brendan Newton, and Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz were all on the court that day. But they say they’re over it. They’ve moved on.
“When we played that game, we left it all out on the court,” Baxter-Bell said. “I don’t have a bad taste in my mouth. It’s not a revenge game. We don’t have to get them back from last time. It’s just another day. It’s our opponent we have to play. I don’t think we have a bad taste in our mouth or we want to make it about revenge. We just want to do what we want to do.”
I wish I felt that way. But, nope. Not this soon. Not against that team. You know that team from Radford. The Highlanders. Nope. It’s personal.
Liberty has faced Radford more than any other opponent in school history. The two schools, located 80 miles from each other, have squared off 74 times previously. They played each other at least twice every year from 1991-92 through 2017-18, five times meeting in the Big South Tournament.
The Highlanders haven’t been bad since that win over Liberty either. They won the Big South regular season title a year ago before losing to Gardner-Webb in the championship game. Behind Carlik Jones, like Liberty, Radford is the preseason favorite to win the Big South.
Carlik Jones? Yes, he’s back. The 6’1″ redshirt-junior averaged 15.7 points and 5.2 rebounds per game a season ago. Along with the Cincinnati, Ohio, native, the Highlanders return three of five starters from a year ago and all three were on the team in that Big South Championship game.
Travis Fields, Jr. returns off a junior campaign where he was named Second Team All-Big South. The starting point guard averaged 10.8 points, 3.0 assists, 2.2 rebounds, and 1.5 steals per game last year. Another returning starter, Donald Hicks, shot 44% from beyond the arc last season.
“Coach Jones is a phenomenal coach,” McKay said. “What they’ve done in their program, how consistent they are, I admire their work. They have the same backcourt that started in that game two years ago. We are experienced, but so are they. I think it will be a great challenge. It should be a fun game to be a part of.”
It’s been extremely rare for Liberty to have a home opener against another Division I program much less one that is a preseason conference favorite. This is only the second Division I team Liberty has played in its season opener since 2004 and first since 2012.
“If you’re playing at the Division I level, every team is good, anybody can beat anybody,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “I’m excited for Radford. We haven’t played them in two years. I know they’re ready for us, and we’re going to be prepared for them. It’s going to be a great game. We’re all excited for opening night.’