Liberty (27-9, 15-3 ASUN) was its season come to an end on Sunday afternoon, falling to Wisconsin (19-14, 9-11 Big Ten) by a score of 75-71 in the second round of the NIT>
“Really have a great deal of respect for Coach Gard and his staff and their basketball program,” Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay said following the game. “They have really good players and a really good team. We knew that this would be a tough challenge. The environment, the stakes, but proud of our group. Our group, we’re not the tallest and most athletic, but we have guys that love the game and love each other. It’s an honor to coach them. I mean that sincerely. Anytime it’s your last game, it’s tough. I know we lost to a worthy opponent, wish them all the best in the rest of the postseason.”
The game was back and forth throughout with nine ties and 14 lead changes. The Badgers took the lead in the closing seconds, Liberty had three looks to either tie or take the lead that just rimmed out as the Flames lost.
Darius McGhee finished the game with 31 points while Kyle Rode added 16. Chucky Hepburn led Wisconsin with 27 points. The Badgers shot 54% from the field and were just 1 of 15 from three.
For Liberty, the season comes to an end. The Flames didn’t get to its ultimate goal of the NCAA Tournament, but a chance to play in the NIT is something to build off going into the off-season.
“I think the NIT is a great opportunity for your players to gain some experience,” McKay said of this past week. “It was loud in there. I think anytime you’re at a mid-major and you get a chance to play a high major, it’s beneficial. In the NIT, we played Villanova, we played Wisconsin. We get a chance to test ourselves against some of the elite conferences, teams, coaches, and players, and I think that’s a good thing for us.”
FLAMES HAD GOOD LOOKS AT END THAT DIDN’T FALL
Liberty and Wisconsin exchanged the lead on four occasions in the closing minute. Zach Cleveland’s bucket in the paint gave Liberty a 71-70 lead with 68 seconds left in the game. Wisconsin answered with a bucket to regain the lead with 42 seconds remaining.
After a Liberty timeout, Coach McKay drew up a great play call that resulted in a wide open look from Kyle Rode from three on the wing. Rode, who was 4 of 7 from three on the afternoon, had his shot bounce around the rim a couple of times before dropping out. Joseph Venzant would then attempt to tip the ball in on the miss but it rolled out with 24 seconds to play.
“We thought they might help on Darius,” McKay said of the play call that ended with a Kyle Rode open three-pointer. “Hammer action on the back-side. They actually did a great job defending it. Colin found the right one, and I’ll take him shooting every day. Matter of a fact, it rolled around the rim. I don’t know, maybe Wisconsin has some ghosts in there that tipped it out. JV’s tip almost went in.”
Wisconsin would then make 1 of 2 free throws to push their lead to 2. Darius McGhee would drive to the rim and had his contested shot, that would have tied it with 8 seconds on the clock, barely miss. The Badgers got the rebound and would make their two free throws for the final margin.
“I think the best part of this program is day one you’re taught if it’s a great shot for you, we live with the result either way,” said Rode. “We’ve got a team and staff that empower us to have that mindset. 100% take it all day.”
WISCONSIN OWNED THE PAINT
Big Ten member Wisconsin had a noticeable size advantage and they utilized that throughout the game. The Badgers outscored the Flames in the paint, 46-36, and also won the rebounding battle, 31-25. 7’0″ Steven Crowl asserted himself early and would finish with 14 points on 7 of 9 shooting. Liberty actually limited him to just one field goal attempt and no points in the second half as he battled foul trouble.
“I think our guys battled,” McKay said of being under-manned in the paint. “They’ve got good players down there. We had a size disadvantage, but what makes them hard to guard is their perimeter shooting. You have to pay attention to it and then they have very unselfish players. Crowl is terrific as a creator for others and Hepburn had a great first half. He’s difficult to guard. Their experience is warranted that they would play through different coverages we had. If I had to do it again, I’m not sure I wouldn’t live with the same game plan, but they have a really good team.”
DARIUS McGHEE’S LIBERTY CAREER ENDS
One of the greatest to ever do it, Darius McGhee officially sees his Liberty career come to an end. The three-time ASUN Player of the Year set numerous records both for Liberty and in the ASUN. He played in four conference championship games during his five seasons and got to play in two NCAA Tournaments (would have been 3 if not for the 2020 NCAAT being canceled.
He finished his final game in a Liberty uniform with 31 points on 10 of 25 shooting, 4 of 15 from three, and 7 of 9 from the free throw line. He also had 6 rebounds, and 4 assists.
“Super grateful for how we responded all night,” said Liberty forward Kyle Rode. “We knew coming in they were going to be a tough team. Love playing with these guys. Sad it’s the last time we will be playing with this team. Super grateful for the experience.”