The Liberty Flames began the 2020-21 season with a 77-64 loss to Purdue in Melbourne, Florida in the first game of the Space Coast Challenge.
The Boilermakers shot 58.5% from the field on the evening and made 9 of their 18 three point attempts. Purdue dominated in the paint, with a 36-14 advantage and 8 second chance points to Liberty’s 0.
“Proud of our group,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said following the game. “That’s a really physical team with a ton of size and they have really good perimeter shooting. So, it really challenges your defense, especially when you havea lot of guys who maybe haven’t resided in the defensive system. Disappointed we gave up too many points, but our effort was there. We just got to have a little better execution.”
True freshman Micaiah Abii made his Liberty debut as a starter and he made an immediate impact. On the Flames’ first possession, the 6’7″ forward hit a mid-range jumper from the elbow that rattled in. Shortly thereafter, he stepped out beyond the three-point line and showed his range with a three pointer as he scored the team’s first five points. The Boilermakers would take an early 7-5 at the first media timeout of the game as Blake Preston and Keegan McDowell were the first two off the bench for Coach McKay, replacing Abii and Kyle Rode.
McDowell, Darius McGhee, and Kyle Rode would get into the scoring column to bring the Flames into a 12-12 tie. Purdue’s size created problems for Liberty in the paint, as they held an early 8-2 advantage on the boards, and went on a 5-0 spurt to claim a 17-12 lead at the under 12 media timeout. Shiloh Robinson and Drake Dobbs checked in for the Flames as McKay went to nine deep early.
Abii continued his stellar play as he made his first five shots from the field, including two from behind the three-point line and a nifty reverse layup. The Flames remained within striking distance, with the Boilermakers’ lead at 25-22 at the under 8 media timeout.
Liberty continued to struggle with the Purdue size as they shot over 60% from the field through the final media timeout of the first half with a 33-27 lead with 3:42 left in the first 20 minutes. The Boilermakers hit a three pointer at the end of the first half to take a 39-32 lead into the halftime break.
Abii led the Flames with 12 points in just 9 minutes as he made all five of his first half shots. Rode added 6 first half points, while McGhee and McDowell each chipped in 5. Grad transfer Chris Parker had 2 points and 4 assists in the first half. Purdue shot 65.2% from the field in the first half and made 5 of 7 three point attempts.
With Abii picking up two first half fouls, McKay elected to go to Blake Preston to start in his place to begin the second half, and Preston had a very solid few minutes. The Boilermakers continued their hot shooting as they made all their first three three-point attempts of the second half to stretch their lead to 52-41 by the first media timeout of the second half. McGhee reached double figures as he scored 9 points in the opening minutes of the second half.
The Flames would keep the score within striking distance despite Purdue continued dominance in the paint, where the Boilermakers held a 22-10 advantage. Senior Elijah Cuffee would pick up his first points of the game with a corner three pointer with just over 12 minutes left in the game to cut the Purdue lead to 9.
Liberty was unable to cut into the Purdue lead with the Boilermakers continuing to shoot over 60% from the field and the Flames struggling from the free throw line. Abii continued his outstanding play, as he made his first two shots of the second half to run his streak of made shots to 7 to begin his career as he pushed his point total to 17. Purdue led 68-57 at the under 8 media timeout of the second half. The Flames wouldn’t get much closer down the stretch as the Boilermakers coasted to the win.
“We have a long view with this team,” said McKay. “Caleb, Georgie, Myo, and Scottie, those guys had probably a couple hundred starts together. We don’t have that same experience. We’re getting exactly what we signed up for or hoped for. We want to see how competitive it is at the highest level. It will prep us well for the ASUN which will be a really competitive season. I’m proud of our guys. This is not an easy task that our guys are embarking on, four in five days, but hats off to them because they are really battling.”
McGhee led the Flames with 21 points while making 7 of his 19 field goals and 4 of 14 from three. He also had 6 rebounds, 4 assists, and 3 steals. Abii finished with 19 points, the most by a freshman since Seth Curry in 2009. He made all 7 of his field goal attempts, including his three three-pointers and both of his free throws. He added 3 rebounds and 4 fouls in 19 minutes.
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics