Liberty and Lipscomb. The Flames and the Bisons.

It’s what everyone has wanted since early in the season when both teams pulled ahead of the field in the ASUN. That mantle continued to be raised throughout the year as the likes of TCU, SMU, and UCLA were knocked off. Then, both LUs raced out to 7-0 conference records before meeting the first time in Lynchburg. They are the top two seeds in the ASUN Tournament following their share of the regular season title. Despite each losing a game in the closing weeks of the regular season, they have found their way to Sunday with a NCAA Tournament bid on the line and the entire college basketball world will be watching.

“I think this is what a lot of people hoped would be the final, and it was a really hard road to get there,” McKay said.

The Bisons beat 8-seed Kennesaw State, 86-71, in the quarterfinals and 5-seed NJIT, 78-55, in the semifinals while the Flames beat 7-seed Jacksonville, 72-58, and 3-seed North Florida, 71-63.

This is still a win or go home game. Lipscomb (25-6, 14-2) and Liberty (27-6, 14-2) have both flirted with having at-large possibilities, but the resumes just aren’t quite there. Only the winner will advance to the NCAA Tournament. The loser will still likely make the NIT, but that’s a consolation prize neither want to consider right now. Whoever wins will find themselves on the 12 or 13 seed line with a legitimate chance at a first round upset. ESPN listed both as a giant killer candidate.

Lipscomb is the favorite. They are playing at home and ranked 47th in the NET compared to Liberty’s 63. The Bisons will likely be a 3-6 point favorite when the line comes out Sunday morning. They are the defending champs. They have the ASUN Player of the Year in Garrison Mathews. Coach Alexander relies exclusively on upperclassmen. 85 of the 90 brackets entered on have Lipscomb as winning the ASUN automatic bid.

But the Flames are certainly no pushover. McKay’s squad features a veteran group that is no stranger to high stakes games. Liberty is in its 2nd straight conference championship game for just the 2nd time in program history, also doing so in 1996 and 1997. This team has played in 12 win or go home games over the past 3 seasons.

“I think our program continues to grow,” McKay said. “We’re privileged to be in the (ASUN). The league is really competitive, has tremendous coaching and really good players. Lipscomb is obviously a tough out. We’ve had some good battles with them, and hopefully we’ll go in there with confidence and a mindset to give our best for 40 minutes.”

Each team won on the other’s home floor this season, including the meeting at Allen Arena on February 13th where the Flames knocked off Lipscomb, 74-66. Five Liberty players reached double figures that game, paced by Lovell Cabbil’s 16 points as he got to the free throw line 13 times. Scottie James added 15 points and 9 rebounds while Caleb Homesley had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds. Lipscomb’s Rob Marberry scored 22 points and was a load in the paint as he and James battled. ASUN Player of the Year Garrison Mathews scored 19 points but was held to 2-of-10 from 3 point range.

Cabbil, Liberty’s best perimeter defender, left the ASUN Semifinal Thursday night with 4:42 left in the game with a left knee injury. He injured it as he attacked the basket and fell to the floor with his left leg bending awkwardly underneath him. As a loud quiet grew over the Vines Center, many feared the worst for the Flames’ senior guard. Fortunately, just a few minutes later he was seen in the tunnel riding the stationary bike and then re-emerged from the tunnel to finish the game on the Liberty bench. On Friday, McKay said Cabbil would be re-evaluated on Saturday in anticipation that he could be cleared to play Sunday. Prior to the play he was injured on, Lovell was 7-for-7 from the field, 2-for-2 from 3, and 4-for-4 from the free throw line in 31 minutes of action in the ASUN Tournament.

This Liberty team is battle-tested. They’ve been in tough environments before, facing the likes of Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, Alabama, and Georgetown. They’ve won at Wake Forest, UCLA, and VCU. Just last year the Flames knocked off 1-seed and tournament host UNC Asheville while advancing to a conference championship game on the road.

“I love the challenge,” Liberty forward Myo Baxter-Bell said. “I think that last year, we had to go to Radford, and I think that helped us grow. We lost off a buzzer-beater, so, I think that disappointment we had walking back in the locker room, we carried that. This is another opportunity to, hopefully, come out on the other end, but I think that was a great learning experience.”

The Flames’ starting point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz struggled in last year’s championship game at Radford. Georgie failed to score, going 0-for-6 from the field with just 1 assist and 2 turnovers in 29 minutes. He knows it will take a better performance to beat Lipscomb.

“We know what it’s going to take to win that game on Sunday,” he said. “I think our experience from last year, it was our first time being in that type of scenario.  I was a little bit nervous, anxious to play, and I didn’t perform very well. This year, we have experience, we’ve been here before.”

After having that taste in their mouth of being just 40 minutes away from the NCAA Tournament, the Flames aren’t satisfied with simply making it to Sunday’s championship game.

“There’s guys that still sting from that (Radford loss),” McKay said. “Obviously, it’s a tough way to lose, but that game has zero bearing on what happens Sunday. That’s over. Carlik Jones isn’t in a Lipscomb jersey last I checked. We get the opportunity to play, and there’s 7 other teams in the league that aren’t here. I feel like our guys are excited and anxious for the opportunity, as we should be, but I don’t think there’s a man in the room that will tell you, ‘Ok, that’s all we want.’ We have high aspirations for our program.”

Liberty is 3-3 all time in conference championship games, last winning one and advancing to the NCAA Tournament in 2013 when the Flames finished at the bottom of the Big South standings before Davon Marshall and John Caleb Sanders got hot to win 4 games. If this year’s team wins, it won’t be because of a magical run. This team belongs on this stage.

“At the start of the season, we all had a goal in mind,” Caleb Homesley said. “I think we did a really good job this season and last season, and it just shows the character of our guys because I feel like we don’t take any steps back. We know that we have to keep pushing, we’re excited for it and we’re ready to play.”

40 minutes is all that stands between the Flames and their goals.

“As a kid, when you’re firing up jumpers from your hip, this is what you want to do,” McKay said. “We all dream about playing in the NCAA tournament or coaching there, and we’re 40 minutes away.”

Baxter-Bell is focused and ready for the tough battle that lies ahead.

“I can’t wait,” Myo said. “Nothing comes easy, that’s kind of the mentality we have. If you want something, you have to go get it. I can’t wait. Nothing comes easy, so, we got to go out and work for it and earn it.”