Liberty (4-3) came up short in the Flames’ attempt at going 3-0 against SEC opponents this season, falling at Missouri (4-0), 69-60.
“They overwhelmed us in the second half,” said Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay. “That length of theirs is hard to play against. We can’t simulate that every day. They end up shooting 57% in the second half, 51% for the game. Not going to beat a potential top 25 team giving up that kind of accuracy.”
The Flames opened the game with perhaps the best possession of defense the team has had all season. Following the team’s subpar defensive performance in Saturday’s win over Bluefield College, that was certainly a point of emphasis from Coach McKay this week leading into the game. Elijah Cuffee and Darius McGhee connected on their first three point attempts of the evening to give Liberty the early 8-4 lead. Cuffee and Blake Preston would then miss a couple of bunnies at the basket on the team’s next two possessions as Missouri tied the game at 8 entering the first media timeout of the game at 14:49.
Liberty made 3 of 5 three point field goal attempts but missed its first four attempts from inside the arc. Cuffee’s second triple of the night gave the team a 12-8 lead at the under 12 media timeout. That bucket sparked a 12-4 run for the Flames who took a 20-12 lead with 7:33 left in the first half. Chris Parker was able to dissect the Tigers defense in the opening minutes as his 3 assists led the team while the Liberty defense forced 6 early turnovers.
Corner threes from Kyle Rode and Keegan McDowell would push the advantage to 26-15 before the Flames hit a cold spell with no points for over 2 minutes as Mizzou cut the Liberty lead to 26-19 at the final media timeout of the first half. Blake Preston would end the drought at about the 3 minute mark with a nice drive and finish at the rim. The Tigers would close the half on a 13-6 run over the final 6 minutes as they cut the Flames’ lead to 32-28 at the break.
Blake Preston led the Flames in scoring with 7 first half points while eight different players had between two and seven points. Liberty shot 5 of 12 from three and 41% from the field in the opening half while Missouri shot 43% from the field and 1 of 9 from three. Liberty held a 9-2 advantage in points off turnovers, forcing 10 Mizzou first half turnovers while only committing three. The Tigers held a 19-10 advantage on the boards in the first half.
Missouri came out with a strong push to begin the second half, scoring 7 straight points to claim a 35-32 lead at the 17:52 mark of the half. That was Mizzou’s first lead since 4-2 in the opening minutes. The Tigers were about to push the lead to 5 when they missed a fast break dunk. It was a big turn around as Cuffee was able to get to the basket and draw the foul on the long rebound. Mizzou would miss on the next possession and Kyle Rode’s triple would give the Flames the lead back at 37-35.
Preston would score 3 straight points for the Flames as he was the first Liberty player to reach double figures with 10 points. Shiloh Robinson would then provide some solid minutes for Liberty as he scored the three point play the old fashioned way. Then, playing a two man game with Parker, he found the Flames’ point guard in the corner for a three pointer as Liberty led 46-44 with 12:34 left in the game.
A 10-1 run by Mizzou would follow as the Tigers made 7 of 8 field goals and 10 of 14 to begin the second half, including all three of their three point attempts. Meanwhile, the Tigers defense stiffened and limited the Flames to just 4 of 13 from the field as Liberty trailed 54-47 at the under 8 media timeout.
Three straight made free throws for the Flames would cut the lead to 4 before the Tigers responded with 7 straight in less than a minute to push their lead to 13. Liberty went over 10 minutes without a made field goal as the Missouri defense clamped down and seized control of the game, coasting to the 69-60 final margin. Missouri outscored Liberty 41-28 in the second half as the Flames made just 7 of 23 field goals and 2 of 13 from behind the arc in the final 20 minutes.
“It was really hard to get an open look,” said McKay. “We love it when people switch, it’s been really good to us all year. Just the length, the size, the physicality of the game, I think we settled a little bit too much in the second half. I think our offense affected our defense. They are a really good team, let’s call a spade a spade. We’re in pursuit of being a nationally renowned program, but Missouri is really good. I think we are too and I think we will get better after this one.”
Preston led the team with 12 points and 5 rebounds on the night. Elijah Cuffee and Kyle Rode each added 10 points while Chris Parker had 5 points and 5 assists. Darius McGhee finished with 9 points but was only 1 of 9 from the field and 1 of 8 from three. True freshman Micaiah Abii only played 7 minutes, finishing with 2 points on 1 of 4 shooting.
“Blake is getting better each time out,” McKay said. “Micaiah, it’s just a learning curve, especially when you are going against a guy like Tilmon, just how hard you have to play, how physical you have to be. Blake came in and steadied the ship a little bit. I thought he and Shiloh were great in the post given their height disadvantage.”
Liberty is scheduled to return to action on Saturday from Liberty Arena against Columbia International at 1 p.m. in a game that will be televised on ESPN+. The NAIA program from Columbia, South Carolina is 4-2 on the season.
*photo courtesy Liberty Athletics