Jalen Finch notched 16 off the bench for Jacksonville State in Saturday's win. (Photo: JSU Athletics)
LYNCHBURG, Va. – All good things come to an end.
Few expected one of those good things – Liberty’s 45-game home win streak – to reach its conclusion Saturday night. However, Ray Harper’s Jacksonville State Gamecocks had other ideas.
In JSU’s first year in the ASUN, they have now risen to the top of the circuit.
Jalen Gibbs’ 21-point effort paced four Gamecocks in double figures Saturday night, leading JSU to a 77-67 victory over the defending three-time ASUN champions before a near-sellout crowd in Liberty Arena.
The big key to stopping the Flames was for JSU as it is all opponents – shutting down ASUN Player of the Year Darius McGhee.
“We were just keeping him uncomfortable, just giving him some different looks, using some length on him at times, trying to swallow him up at the rim, making him score over us. I thought we did it,” Harper said. “We had two or three possessions in a 40-minute game where I thought we relaxed. Every time we did, he banged a three. Other than that – he’s gonna make some tough ones. He banked one in late. For the most part, I’d say his night wasn’t easy.”
No Flame had an easy night, largely because of the active Jacksonville State defense. The Gamecocks shut down driving lanes, created traffic, and forced numerous tough looks. The Gamecocks’ activity on the perimeter locked down Liberty’s outside game, as the Flames knocked down just 10-of-31 tries from beyond the arc.
When the Flames tried to go to the basket, JSU used its size and athleticism to turn away Liberty looks.
“I thought (forward Maros) Zeliznak was terrific on the defensive end. I thought he did a great job of walling up in the post. He changed some shots in the post. He battled on the glass,” Harper said. “He did about everything that we could ask for. I thought (our post players) did a good job in there.
“We had some rotations in the first half where we weren’t getting level to the ball and we weren’t rotating, and they made us pay. For the most part, I thought our guys flew around. I thought they were aggressive. I thought they did almost exactly what we asked them to do.”
“They’re a good defensive team,” said Liberty coach Ritchie McKay. “It hasn’t been that physical since LSU. We’ve gotta find a way to respond to that.”
McGhee, for his part, acknowledged the Gamecocks’ defensive effort.
“They did a great job of making it difficult on the offensive end. I think we’ve really just gotta lock in, figure out ways to counter that, and just be better prepared next time.
“I think it kind of shocked me.”
Jacksonville State (15-6, 8-0 ASUN) utilized a first half in which it knocked down 51.7 percent of its tries from the deck and held Liberty to just under 35 percent to take a 13-point lead to the interval. The Flames also committed eight first-half miscues, an uncommon number for a club that averaged just over 12 per game in ASUN play coming into Saturday night.
McGhee tallied 13 of his team’s 25 first-half points, despite connecting on just 4-of-12 tries from the floor and 2-of-6 from distance. The visitors locked down McGhee and the Flames as part of a 16-2 run in the period, compelling Liberty to hit just 1-of-9 in a stretch.
Liberty (14-7, 5-1) started strong in the second period, going on a 13-5 burst that cut the lead to five. Keegan McDowell capped the run by drilling a triple that brought the lively crowd to its feet. The Flames went into the bonus just seconds later, as Shiloh Robinson dropped a pair of free throws with 12:22 to play. In a microcosm of the night, the Flames would not attempt another free throw in the game.
Liberty found five to be the insurmountable obstacle of the second half. The Flames closed within that number on four different occasions in the period. Every time the Flames made a run, however, Jacksonville State countered. The final counterpunch served as Liberty’s knockout blow.
After a Robinson three cut the lead to five with 10:06 to go, Jacksonville State responded. The Gamecocks forced three consecutive Liberty turnovers in the stretch, with three Demaree King free throws, a Kayne Henry layup, and a Darian Adams bucket turning the tenuous five-point lead to 11 in the span of a minute and a half. Liberty worked the game back into single digits just six times, never drawing any closer than eight points at two separate times in the final minute.
Gibbs added four boards to his 21-point effort. Jalen Finch poured in 16 on 6-of-10 from the field, also adding four caroms. Henry added 13, with King scoring 12. The Gamecocks connected on 50 percent (25-of-50) from the field and 44.4 percent (12-of-27) from three.
McGhee’s 25 paced Liberty. Kyle Rode contributed 13 points, seven boards, and seven assists. The seven helpers tied Rode with McGhee for the team lead. Robinson finished with 12 in 27 minutes. Liberty shot 40 percent (26-for-65), but just 32.3 percent (10-for-31) from distance.
Liberty hits the road Monday to take on Kennesaw State at the KSU Convocation Center in Kennesaw, Ga. Tip time is set for 7:00. Jacksonville State returns home to Pete Mathews Coliseum to battle North Florida Thursday night. That game will begin at 7:30.
POSTGAME AUDIO - Liberty (Ritchie McKay, Darius McGhee, Kyle Rode) and Jacksonville State (Ray Harper)