For many that grow up with a basketball in their hands, they dream of one day being able to play on the big stage and compete in the NCAA Tournament while living out “One Shining Moment.” At Liberty, we got to experience those dreams become reality right before our eyes. That dream became a reality for everyone associated with the Liberty basketball program. The coaches, players, staff, administration, fans, alumni, and supporters.
Don’t let that moment pass you by. Don’t be so quick to move on to the next thing and next year. Relish it. Soak it in.
Ritchie McKay got to the Big Dance for just the 2nd time as a head coach and picked up his first ever Tournament win. He took a huge gamble when he left Virginia to come back to Lynchburg 4 years ago. The Cavaliers had developed into a top 10 program nationally, and McKay left to come to a program that was near the bottom of all Division I. But he had a vision of what this program could be, and he got to live in it just 4 years later.
The same can be said for Brad Soucie. He’s been by McKay’s side for his entire head coaching career. He’s seen all the ups and downs. He’s been out of a job, praying the next opportunity would come. We also know his story this season, and all the struggles he experienced with his wife’s cancer fight. How much do you think these past few weeks have meant to him and his family?
Lovell Cabbil came to Liberty as McKay’s first recruit back in 2015. McKay had nothing to sell him but an opportunity and a dream. They lost their first 13 Division I games together, but never gave up, kept working. This was his last opportunity, but he was able to make a dream become reality.
“(It was) a real special moment,” Cabbil said of beating Lipscomb to advance to the NCAA Tournament. “Just knowing that 4 years ago, this is the exact vision that (McKay) had set out. Him selecting me to be a part of this journey with him means a lot to me. Knowing that he wanted to start this journey with me, and for us to end up exactly where he wanted to be 4 years later, it’s just a testament to him as a coach and as a man.”
Keenan Gumbs decided to leave Division III Schreiner University to chase a childhood dream of playing Division I basketball. He had many opportunities, but he chose Liberty.
“You can’t draw it up any better,” Gumbs said of being able to make the Big Dance in his only season of DI ball. “My dad said the same thing, but I was just thinking about my journey, and then just my team here and how they’ve accepted me and just welcomed me in to the group. It’s been a fun ride. It’s been amazing.”
The other guys that have been here for four years also got to relish in their accomplishment after years of hard work. Zach Farquhar, Myo Baxter-Bell, and Caleb Homesley have all been here for the entire ride. From the 13 game Division I losing streak to begin their career, to winning 21 out of 24 games to close this season. Farquhar began as a walk-on and just hoped to make the team. Baxter-Bell arrived and had academic hurdles to climb. We all know Homesley’s ups and downs with his knee injuries. How sweet this ride must be for them.
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“It’s fun to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Homesley said shortly before the team left for San Jose. “It doesn’t happen all the time. We’re very, very grateful for it. We’re going to take every moment and soak it up. Everything I went through and then also falling short last year when I wasn’t 100%. As well with Lovell, everything we’ve been through, the emotions came because of everything this team has been through. Not just myself, seeing how we started off with the coaches coming here and then the 4 year guys that were here.”
After deciding to leave Bradley following his freshman season where he averaged 3 points and 2 rebounds per game, Scottie James wasn’t recruited by Liberty. His mom was a professor here and got him and the coaching staff connected. Then he had to sit out a year due to NCAA transfer rules while the Flames began to turn the tide and win 20 games for the first time in several years.
“I just knew that we had worked so hard just to get to the point that we were,” James said. “We deserved to be here just because of the work we put in, the togetherness we have, it was special.”
Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz didn’t have any other DI offers out of high school, but Coach McKay took a chance on him. He hit the big shot in the final seconds against Lipscomb to push the Flames over the edge. And his confidence, his confidence is next level. This is what he said on Wednesday before the team had even left for San Jose:
“This is a dream come true, just to be here and be a part of the NCAA Tournament and being able to win games in the tournament. I think all the guys think the same thing. It’s a dream come true being able to win an NCAA Tournament game. It’s great. It’s going to be awesome when we do that on Friday.”
The stories are similar for all 14 members of the team. It’s also similar for the guys who laid the foundation and continue to support the program. Ryan Kemrite, John Dawson, Anthony Fields, and many others were part of this. Ezra and Josiah, the Talbert brothers, despite leaving before their eligibility expired, were in San Jose to witness this. Even the guys that came before these past 4 seasons, guys like Jesse and John Caleb Sanders, Joel VanderPol, and Tomasz Gielo. The list goes on and on.
And for each of you reading this, whether you’re a first-year student who didn’t start paying attention to the team until the NCAA Tournament win over Mississippi State or you’ve been following the University’s athletic programs since the 1970s, these moments are ones you will never forget. Enjoy them because you never know when they will happen again.