Liberty (27-8, 15-3 ASUN) picks up a win over Villanova (17-17, 10-10 Big East), 62-57, in the first round of the NIT to keep their season alive for at least one more game.
“I have a ton of respect for Villanova and their program,” said Liberty head coach Ritchie McKay. “I think it’s a win that we’ll value a ton. Villanova has a winning DNA having been to three Final Fours in the last seven years, there’s a lot of guys that touched a lot of success. You could tell they were never going to give up. They were never going to allow themselves to get too far behind because they have a ton of character, a ton of toughness, and so does our group.”
Liberty led for over 33 of the 40 minutes Tuesday night but the advantage never got higher than nine as the Wildcats stayed within striking distance. The Flames would keep Villanova at bay just enough to hold on for the close win. The win marks Liberty’s second ever win over a Big East opponent, having also beaten Virginia Tech in 2000 when they were a member of the league.
Darius McGhee led Liberty in scoring with 26 points as he made 5 of 13 from three. Cooin Porter added 14 points and 7 rebounds while Zach Cleveland had 6 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists.
The Flames will now take on Wisconsin in the 2nd round of the NIT as the Badgers defeated Bradley, 81-62, on Tuesday night. The game will be played in Madison, Wisconsin with date and time to be determined later. It is expected the game will be played on Sunday.
DARIUS BOUNCES BACK
One of Liberty’s greatest players of all-time, Darius McGhee had an unusual performance last Sunday in the ASUN championship game where he was 0 for 11 from three. He bounced back in a big way for the Flames on their home floor against Villanova Tuesday night. McGhee finished with a game high 27 points on 9 of 20 shooting and 5 of 13 from three.
“I was waiting for the ball to go through in Atlanta too because I’ve seen it for five years,” McKay said of McGhee. “It’s such an aberration for Darius to not make a three point field goal. We know better. We see him every day. Happy for him, happy for all he gets because of the humility and the sacrifice he’s deposited into our program. He’s a special young man. I think he’s one of the best guards in the country.”
ZACH CLEVELAND WITH A CAREER NIGHT
Liberty freshman forward Zach Cleveland had one of his best games of his early career. Cleveland finished with a career high 12 rebounds to go along with 7 points and 5 assists as he played nearly 28 minutes.
“Colin has gotten the minutes because he deserved them, but Zach’s trajectory was right there then he got sick,” said McKay. “I trust him. He’s a really special player. I think when you see he, Colin, and some of the other players we have, obviously, we are going to miss #2, but I think we’ve got a program that has a bright future.”
FLAMES SEASON CONTINUES
There are very few teams that are remaining in college basketball and that number will continue to dwindle. The Flames will stay alive for at least one more game and a few more days. Enjoy the ride while it lasts because it will be over quickly.
“There will be 52 teams eliminated in the NCAA Tournament by Sunday,” said McKay. “There will be 16 eliminated by tomorrow in the NIT. That is 32 teams left after five days of competition. To be one of those teams is a privilege. We are going to enjoy this and we are going to keep trying to get better.”