Liberty (18-14, 7-9) lost to UTEP (17-15, 7-9), 66-57, on Thursday evening in the CUSA Tournament quarterfinals.

“Hard fought game, tough way to end a five-year career of one of the most incredible people that I’ve ever had a chance to be a part of,” said Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay. “UTEP did a great job coming back in the second half, was very aggressive, got to the free throw line. We haven’t been a great free throw shooting team this season, that’s a little uncharacteristic. They made 19, we made four. They were definitely the aggressor and got a chance to advance.”

The two teams who shared a 7-9 conference record in the regular season and split the regular season series, went back and forth throughout the first half with neither team pushing its lead higher than 7 points. The Flames would go scoreless for over 4 minutes, making just 1 of 10 field goals over a stretch that allowed the Miners to push its lead to 7 at the 7:38 mark of the first half.

Liberty would respond as Kyle Rode and Kaden Metheny traded buckets, combining to make 4 straight to bring the team clad in white back to within one possession. The Flames would commit 7 turnovers in the opening 20 minutes while making 7 of 12 triples, but entered the locker room with a 31-30 deficit at the intermission.

Metheny led the Flames with 20 points as he made 6 of 10 from behind the arc. Joseph Venzant added 10 points and 8 rebounds while Kyle Rode also had 10 points. Zach Cleveland finished the game with 7 points, 6 assists, and 8 rebounds.

The second half was a tale of two halves. The Flames went from down 1 to up 12 by the midway point of the second half. From there, it was all UTEP. The Miners held Liberty to just 3 points down the stretch, being outscored 24-3 to close out the game.


With Kaden Metheny’s made three-pointer at the 10:33 mark of the second half, Liberty went up 54-42 and it looked like the Flames would coast into the CUSA semifinals. As we have all learned this season, nothing would come easy and the Miners ensured that on Thursday.

The Miners went on an 11-0 run to quickly cut their deficit to just a single point, with a couple of those baskets coming off turnovers that led to fast break buckets at the paint. Down the stretch, when Liberty only scored three points, the Flames missed the front end of a one-and-one three times – Joseph Venzant, Colin Porter, and Shiloh Robinson all had their opportunities bounce off the rim. The Flames were just 4 of 10 from the charity stripe compared to 19 of 22 by the Miners, and those missed front ends of one and ones are akin to turnovers.

“They went small and were really aggressive,” McKay said of UTEP and their run. “We turned it over a few times. We did a great job the first 30 minutes of not giving up transition points. Turnovers, that’s how they play, that’s how they win. Hats off to Joe going small. We prepped all week for that and felt like we could take advantage.”


UTEP leads the country in forced turnovers. They caused Liberty to commit a season high 17 turnovers a couple weeks ago in their win in Lynchburg, and, on Thursday, 15 Liberty turnovers helped the Miners secure the victory and advance to play on Friday in the semifinals against top-seeded Sam Houston.

Couple the turnovers with the miscues at the charity stripe, things that have bit the Flames at inopportune times this season, and Liberty couldn’t overcome UTEP’s push.

“I thought we showed a lot of toughness down the stretch there in the second half,” said UTEP head coach Joe Golding. “Credit to Liberty. They have a terrific team, it was a tough game after playing them just two weeks ago. We made the adjustment to go small. Our guys bought in, we got some steals, some turnovers quickly, got the lead down to six.”


Liberty has seen tremendous success in recent seasons, advancing to at least the semifinal round of the conference tournament in six straight seasons while also cutting down the nets three times during that run. That would not be the case for the Flames this season, as UTEP ends the Liberty season prematurely.

Liberty was the preseason favorite in the program’s first year in CUSA. After a strong start to non-conference play at 6-0, the Flames were unable to find any consistency once the calendar turned to January and conference play began. The Flames started 0-3 in conference and could never get above .500 in the CUSA.

“We won’t ever compromise the kind of young men we bring in to represent Liberty, their families, and our program,” said McKay. “We have such a pride in being able to wear that jersey and logo. It’s harder than a lot of other leagues, I can tell you that, but you never know until you go through it. In some ways, it’s almost like taking a new job again because it wasn’t one city that we had been to before other than Jacksonville State. Hadn’t played against any of those coaches other than Coach Harper and McDevitt at his Asheville days. You can just tell by the way Nick has changed the way he built his program in the Big South. They are a lot different, they look different.”

“I think we will have some changes ahead to help us compete on an annual basis for the conference. I think this program is built to last. We’re not in a Power Five league, so typically it’s a one bid. We had some chances tonight but unfortunately we’re not advancing. Though I’m discouraged right now, I love our group and what they’ve accomplished.”