It was the final season opener in Vines Center history and the Liberty faithful came out in full force, to witness the reigning ASUN champion Liberty Flames defeat Radford, 66-60.
The Highlanders took the lead 1-0 in the opening seconds, but the Flames immediately answered to take a 3-1 lead on a Darius McGhee three-pointer at the top of the key. Liberty would go on to lead for the final 38:27 of game action. The lead got to as many as 20 points late in the first half, but Radford wouldn’t go away as the Flames held on in the final minutes.
“One of those Radford-Liberty games,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said following the win. “It always happens with them. We’ve had some really close games with them. I knew they were going to come back. It’s a team that beat Texas and Notre Dame on the road last year with all their backcourt back. I think this is a really good team.”
Ever since Ritchie McKay returned to Liberty in 2015, he has built the program on the pack line defense that he jokingly refers to his time at Virginia as earning a Master’s Degree in the defense made face by Dick Bennett. The Flames’ showcased that defense throughout the game, it took the Highlanders until 15:13 in the first half to make their first field goal.
True freshmen Kyle Rode and Shiloh Robinson were inserted into the lineup and immediately made contributions. On Shiloh’s first play, he found Kyle Rode for his first career bucket. Just a few possessions later, Rode returned the favor as Robinson got his first career bucket.
It was no surprise to see Rode shining as he entered the program as its highest rated recruit in school history, but Robinson was expected to redshirt this season before impressing the coaches as soon as he arrived on campus this summer.
“I think our freshmen are really good,” McKay said. “I think the biggest compliment is our guys trust them, they think that our guys are really good. Both Shiloh and Kyle made a huge impact on the game.”
The freshmen led the Flames in scoring with 7 points a piece as Liberty went into the halftime break with a 33-19 lead. Liberty held the Big South preseason favorite to 27% shooting in the opening 20 minutes while the Flames shot 52% and were 6-of-13 from 3.
“To go up 20 in the first half, I thought we were marvelous in the first half,” McKay said. “In that initial 14 minutes defensively I thought we were really connected. They had 6 points on two three point plays and it only was 14 in the locker room and there was a little bit of disappointment. I think that led to a little bit of an inauspicious start to the second half. We started relying on our offense and not our defense.”
Radford came out of the locker room looking for something positive and trying to stay in the game. They would cut the Liberty lead to 9 in the opening minutes of the second stanza. Liberty led 33-13 late in the first half, but the Highlanders used an extended 20-9 run capped by a Travis Fields 3-pointer with 13:04 to play as Liberty led, 42-33.
It would get as close as 5 as Liberty’s offense stalled in the second half. The Flames hit just 2-of-11 field goals to open the half as Radford continued to cut into Liberty’s lead.
Caleb Homesley would end the drought with a running jump shot in the lane to push Liberty’s lead to 45-37 with 6:57 left in the game as the Vines Center came to it’s feet. The 7,872 fans in attendance is the biggest Vines Center crowd since November 17, 2009 when Liberty hosted Clemson.
Liberty would withstand the run down the stretch as Rode hit a three pointer on the baseline with 3:57 to play to push the lead to 50-41. From there, the Flames would get to the free throw line and make enough to win the game.
Homesley finished the game with a team-high 18 points and 6 rebounds. Kyle Rode finished with 12 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 assists. Myo Baxter-Bell chipped in 9 while Robinson and Elijah Cuffee finished with 8 points each.
Carlik Jones got to 31 points on the evening, including a three pointer in the final seconds to cut the lead to 4 before Liberty closed it out.
“Hats off to Radford, a really, really tough, competitive game,” said McKay. “I’m really proud of our group because I think that could have been one that easily start checking the scoreboard and scoreboard watching and it gets away from you.”
The Flames return to action on Sunday afternoon back in the Vines Center against Maryland Eastern-Shore at 2 p.m.