Liberty overcame 25% field goal shooting in the first half to defeat NJIT, 62-49, moving to 24-3 overall and 10-2 in ASUN play. 24 wins its the 2nd most in the program’s Division I history, 2nd only to last year’s squad that won 29.
“Having a week off, we looked a little bit out of rhythm,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said. “Our last 4 games we’ve been clicking offensively, and we weren’t in that first half, and then we got a little bit back in our lane in the 2nd half.”
With the win, Liberty stays even with North Florida in the loss column at just half a game behind the 11-2 Ospreys who defeated North Alabama, 80-67, Saturday afternoon.
Liberty had not trailed for a single second of the previous four games, spanning 160 minutes of game time, but that streak would come to an end 91 seconds into the action against the Highlanders. NJIT took a 4-2 lead on a Souleymane Diakite jumper.
The Highlanders would maintain the lead for the most of the first half, not surrendering it until the 4:11 mark when Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz made a pair of free throws.
Both teams struggled from the floor, not reaching 20 points in the half until the final minute. Both teams would combine for 10 points in the final 70 seconds of action.
NJIT’s Zach Cooks is the ASUN leading scorer, but he has struggled against the Flames. Entering Saturday’s contest, the 5’9″ guard was 3-of-34 from the field in three games against Liberty dating back to last season. He missed all 12 of his shots in the team’s first game earlier this season when he finished with just 3 points. He missed his first four shots Saturday before making a pair of three-pointers in the final 70 seconds of the first half, including a running shot as time expired, cutting Liberty’s lead to 23-21 at halftime.
Cooks would get called for a technical foul in the opening 20 minutes after jawing at Liberty players. He exchanged words with Myo Baxter-Bell in the opening minutes and the refs gave a warning to both teams to stop talking. NJIT head coach Brian Kennedy was warned immediately after Cooks technical.
Reigning ASUN Player of the Week Caleb Homesley, struggled on the offensive end in the first half, missing his first seven field goals. He would get open on the baseline for a triple with 7 seconds left in the half as he moved ahead of John Caleb Sanders for 15th place on Liberty’s career scoring list with 1,385.
In the second half, the Flames would get back on track offensively, shooting 51.9% from the field and making 5-of-9 three pointers.
After a quiet first half where he didn’t make a field goal, Pacheco-Ortiz made back-to-back three pointers for the Flames early in the 2nd half as Liberty maintained a three point lead.
McKay opted to go with Baxter-Bell and Scottie James on the court together for multiple stints against NJIT. The duo combined to score 27 points on 11-of-21 field goals while grabbing 11 rebounds.
“Myo’s quick enough to defend,” McKay said of playing them together. “(San Antonio) Brinson’s a little different matchup for Caleb. We play that lineup a little bit in practice. I thought we would give that lineup a look tonight. I thought it was decent.”
Baxter-Bell would also make two three pointers in the game, the first time in his career he has made multiple three point shots.
Liberty’s lead would grow towards double figures in the closing minutes as Homesley began to find his rhythm on the offensive end of the floor.
“I thought our group found a way,” McKay stated. “Typically, when we play as one, or when our offense mirrors our defense, we’re a tough out. We were struggling offensively in the first half, but our defense was consistent enough to get us the lead. Then, I thought we made a couple plays in the 2nd half that were important to our cause.”
The Flames would hold NJIT to 38.8% from the field on the evening as Zach Cooks finished with a team high 14 points on 3-of-9 field goal shooting. Cooks, Brinson, and Shyquan Gibbs all played the entire game.
Baxter-Bell, Homesley, and Pacheco-Ortiz each finished with 14 points as Scottie James added 13.
Big week looms for the Flames with the program’s last two home games of the regular season. In what could end up being a battle for first place in the final ASUN standings, North Florida visits the Vines Center Thursday night to take Liberty. The Ospreys are 11-2 in league play while the Flames are 10-2. Then, for senior night, Stetson, who is currently 9-3 in the ASUN, visits Saturday.