Liberty’s Caleb Homesley, the ASUN Player of the Year, scored 26 points and drew a charge with 33 seconds remaining in a key situation to lift Liberty to a 66-62 win over Stetson in the ASUN Semifinals Thursday night.
With the win, the Flames advance to the program’s third consecutive conference championship game as Liberty will face Lipscomb on Sunday afternoon in a rematch from the 2019 ASUN Championship Game.
“It was a phenomenal college basketball game,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said. “Hats off to Stetson. I thought they did a really good job, especially the first half. Once we got the lead, once we broke through, I think we relaxed a little bit and started playing a little more efficiently on the offensive end.”
Much like the second half in Liberty’s loss at Stetson in late January, the Flames could not find any rhythm in the first half. The Flames were 4-of-19 from the field in the first 15 minutes of action, and ASUN Player of the Year Caleb Homesley made three of those. The Hatters pushed the lead to 18-9 as the Flames struggled.
Shiloh Robinson stopped the bleeding with a three-pointer from the corner at the 4:25 mark of the first half to cut Stetson’s lead to 6. That bucket would spark five consecutive makes from Liberty to close out the first half as McGhee made two triples and Homesley had two layups as the Flames went into the halftime break trailing 25-22.
Elijah Cuffee has struggled offensively for most of the conference season, but it’s his defense that he’s known for. The shutdown defender was able to come away with a huge steal and bucket in transition early in the second half to give the Flames their first lead of the game, one they wouldn’t relinquish.
“I don’t worry about Elijah Cuffee and what he doesn’t contribute offensively because he is an elite defender,” said McKay. “He is an elite defender, similarly to Lovell Cabbil last year, only Cuff’s a little bigger, a little stronger. The way he plays, he really energizes our group, and his commitment on that end is really infectious.”
His bucket was part of a 9-0 Liberty run and the run extended to 15-2 on another Cuffee bucket in the paint as the Flames pushed the lead to its largest margin of the game, 40-30, with 11:17 left. Those were Cuffee’s only made shots of the game.
During the run, the Flames thrived off a Vines Center that had everyone on their feet. That was as loud as the Vines has been all season. Even McKay ripped his suit jacket while waving his arms trying to get the crowd energized.
“It was a great home court advantage,” McKay said afterwards. “It reminded me of some of the JPJ days when I was an assistant and UVA and how loud that place gets. It was definitely an assist from Flames Nation.”
Cuffee’s defense on ASUN Freshman of the Year Rob Perry limited him to just 8 points on 3-of-11 shooting from the field. He was held scoreless until the 3:43 mark of the second half.
Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz finished the night off going a perfect 8-of-8 from the free throw line in the final 44 seconds.
“I’ve been there before,” Georgie said after the game. “I love those moments. My teammates trust me to knock down free throws in close moments. I’ve been experiencing those moments since my freshman year.”
The 26 points is the most Homesley has scored in an ASUN tournament game and he also surpassed Matt Hildebrand for 11th on the all-time scoring list.
“We were trying to take him out of the game,” said Stetson head coach Donnie Jones. “He’s such a good player, just more talented than our guys, and he was able to make one-on-one plays. We just didn’t want them to beat us with their system and their plays. We wanted to make individuals beat us tonight, and their talent stood out tonight. They have really good players and that’s why they won.”
Homesley was 10-of-15 from the field and 3-of-4 from three point range as he also finished with 8 rebounds.
“His maturation as a complete player is phenomenal,” McKay said of Homesley. “If you go back towards the end of last season when we started playing really well, Caleb’s defensive presence really elevated our ability. He made some big plays on both ends of the floor. He’s player of the year for a reason and we’re really happy that he’s wearing a Liberty jersey.”
McGhee added 11 points and 6 rebounds as he made 3-of-6 triples. Pacheco-Ortiz finished with 13 points, 3 rebounds, and 3 assists.
The win is the 29th of the season for Liberty which ties the program record for most wins in a single season, a record set one year ago.
“They’re veterans,” Donnie Jones said. “They did it with guys who have won and been to the NCAA Tournament.”