Stetson delivered several punches to the two-time defending ASUN champion Liberty Flames on Friday afternoon in the ASUN Semifinal game at UNF Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, but the Flames took the blows and battled right back. Liberty (22-5, 11-2) held on to defeat the Hatters (11-14, 7-9), 77-64.
With the win, the Flames advance to a fourth straight conference championship game and third straight ASUN Tournament Championship Game. Liberty will face the winner of Friday night’s game between 5-seed North Florida and 6-seed Florida Gulf Coast with tip-off scheduled for 7 p.m.
“I haven’t been around any program before where a kid has played in four consecutive conference championship games and that’s what Elijah Cuffee will do on Sunday,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said after the game. “He’s one of the best winners that I’ve ever been around. He won’t get the credit because his numbers aren’t tops in this or tops in that, but that’s really a special accomplishment.”
The Hatters have proven to be a tough out for Liberty over the past couple of seasons, splitting the regular season series each of the past two years. Stetson would prove to be a tough out once again Friday afternoon as they grabbed the lead in the opening minutes, leading by as many as 7 points at 20-13 midway through the first half.
Liberty struggled to find any rhythm offensively, particularly from behind the arc, missing its first five three point attempts on the afternoon. The Flames’ sophomore class of Shiloh Robinson and Kyle Rode answered the first punch, 9 straight points for Liberty to bring the team within two points. Rode would connect on the first made three-pointer for the Flames on the afternoon, and senior Elijah Cuffee would make two straight to give Liberty its first lead of the game with 2:50 left in the first half.
Cuffee’s two threes sparked a 10-0 run to end the first half as Liberty entered the locker room with a 34-26 halftime edge despite ASUN Player of the Year Darius McGhee being held scoreless in the opening 20 minutes. As usual, the Liberty defense was key to the run, holding Stetson scoreless for the final 3:42 of the first half.
The Flames’ lead would grow to 10 to open the second period, but the Hatters weren’t done throwing punches. They would go on a 9-0 to cut the Flames’ lead to 1 at 38-37 with just under 16 minutes left in the game.
With Liberty leading, 47–44, with 9:20 left in the game, McGhee would find himself open for a three-pointer in the corner right in front of the Flames’ bench. He drained the shot, falling to the floor after making contact with the Stetson defender Chase Johnston. The officials ruled it an offensive foul on McGhee, stating he initiated the contact by kicking his legs out into the defender. The foul took the points off the board for the Flames.
That call would spark a 13-3 Hatters run as they seized all the momentum and the lead, 54-50, with just 7:36 left in the game. Liberty would answer the call once again. This time, Liberty went on an 8-0 run to grab the lead it would not relinquish. Freshman point guard Drake Dobbs started the run with a three-pointer, followed by a Blake Preston bucket, and a three-point play by McGhee.
“We could have gone the wrong direction,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said of the final several minutes in the game after Stetson regained the lead at 54-50. “Whenever you are the 1-seed, I think there’s an added pressure to being able to get the desired outcome. It just doesn’t happen like that in college basketball, especially when you’re on a neutral floor. The way we played from that point on, I thought was really a reflection of the young men that are in our program and who they are. Winning takes a sacrifice. We have guys that are willing to make a sacrifice in order to adhere to the best interest of the program. Blake Preston starred in that role today.”
With the Hatters still hanging around, Preston picked up his fourth personal foul of the game with 4:31 left in the game. The 6’9″ forward from Charlotte, North Carolina would play with a fire after picking up that foul. He scored 6 points to go with 4 rebounds and 1 assist to help keep Stetson at bay as the Flames cruised to the victory.
Preston recorded a double-double with 13 points and 10 rebounds. He also played solid defense on Stetson big man Mahamadou Diawara who was limited to 1 of 4 on his field goal attempts on the afternoon.
“I think he provides the ability for us to play one on one in the post,” McKay said after the game of Preston. “I think the minutes that he’s earned have been deposited. We can depend on him. He was who we needed him to be in the game at the moment. I thought he executed in a Scottie James like fashion.”
McGhee scored 13 points, as well, all of them coming in the second half. He was 5 of 14 from the field and 2 of 7 from three while also recording a career-high 9 assists to go along with 5 rebounds. Chris Parker led the team in scoring with 16 points, making 6 of his 9 field goal attempts.
“The reason we are so hard to guard is we’re selfless, it speaks to their character,” said McKay. “Darius had 9 assists tonight. It speaks to how much of an impact he makes on the offensive end of the floor, but he’s also good defensively. I like the way he played.”
Keegan McDowell had 9 points while Elijah Cuffee added 8 points, 5 rebounds, and 4 assists. Kyle Rode chipped in 9 points, 3 rebounds, and 2 assists.
“I haven’t been around many teams like this,” McKay added. “Our group, they’re special. They really are. They are great representatives of our university and our athletics department. I speak for all our coaches when I say they’re a blessing to coach.”