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Liberty overcomes sluggish start, wins big on Senior Night

Liberty honored its five seniors (Stephen Burggraf, Kyle Rode, Shiloh Robinson, Darius McGhee, and Blake Preston) before Friday's win over Queens. (Photo: Liberty Athletics)

LYNCHBURG, Va. -- There couldn't have been any other ending.

After the years of success Liberty's five seniors have enjoyed as part of the Flames' program -- and the legendary career of Darius McGhee headlining that success -- the home fans would surely get one more chance to send off their group that has been so vital to three of the best seasons in Liberty's history during their time in Lynchburg with a standing ovation and a win.

For about 30 minutes, it seemed as if Queens had plans to ruin the Hollywood script.

The visiting Royals held McGhee without a basket in the first half for the first time since last November against Manhattan -- the only game in which McGhee scored single digits last season -- and Liberty held a tenuous, 26-24 lead at the interval. Things got even more tenuous for the home side at the 8:48 mark when Jay'Den Turner splashed a triple for Queens that tied the game.

In the end, though, the style of basketball embodied during the entirety of those seniors' time in Lynchburg won the day. The worry faded. The crowd erupted. Liberty erased all doubt, unleashing a 15-0 run to put away the Royals for the second time in 48 hours.

Oh, and that McGhee guy? He only ended up as Liberty's leading scorer, knocking down 7-of-14 second-half shots to guide his Flames to a 73-53 victory before an announced record crowd of 4,041 at Liberty Arena.

For as good as McGhee was, though, his teammates helped start the engine as Liberty does -- by focusing on fundamentals. Joseph Venzant keyed the burst with back-to-back buckets to start the charge. Zach Cleveland contributed a key bucket just before the run, slicing the margin to three. McGhee then put home a three to equalize.

"It was just a couple errors on back cuts," Leonard said when assessing the reason for the tide turning. "Their role players -- everyone's so worried about McGhee. We didn't build our whole defense around McGhee like some teams do. We try to say that McGhee's gonna take shots, and we're gonna make them as difficult as possible. The role guys can't get you. We started giving up back doors and layups to their role players, and that's when it popped open.

"We've gotta be able to mentally focus and not give up those easy baskets for 40 minutes."

"We shot 30 percent in the first half. That's not characteristic of our group," Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. "I do think our guys have a maturity and a response button that is authentic. I thought Zach Cleveland gave us a huge spark. (Forward) Zay (Warfield) and Joseph were terrific. When Darius hit a couple, we became a little harder to guard."

"I felt like the whole game, we got a lot of great shots. Some just didn't fall," Venzant said. "I thought we played great defense the whole game. On the offensive end, they started going in and on the defensive end, we were getting the stops. That energy comes around."

McGhee struggled for a second-straight night, but his shot-making coincided with his team's response. McGhee was personally responsible for nine-straight in the 15-0 burst, while his team hit its last nine shots and 15 of its final 18.

"Everyone shoots shots to make it, so it kind of enters your mind a little bit," McGhee said of his struggles. "I said in the locker room that it's kind of like living life. For us, we get to respond to our circumstances in front of everybody. Hopefully, it's applicable to the fans from their view. You've just gotta keep pursuing, no matter the circumstances."

"We trust him," Venzant added. "Anytime Darius shoots a shot, we think it's going in. If he misses it, we don't care."

"Darius McGhee is one of the best guards in the country -- if not one of the best players," McKay said. "He's gonna get right."

While Liberty is renowned for its attention to detail on offense, the Flames also have a reputation for a stellar defense. Liberty again locked down Queens star Kenny Dye, limiting him to nine points for a second-straight night and holding him to just 6-for-25 from the floor in the back-to-back contests. The Royals as a team hit just three of their final 12 shots after Turner hit the equalizing three.

"Kenny Dye is a special player," McKay said. "I've watched him at least 15 times, and the things that he does for their team are not unlike what Darius does for ours -- not only in his scoring prowess, but he is a terrific creator. He's definitely an all-conference guard. It's a credit to JV, Zay -- and Darius and Colin (Porter) a little bit, too -- that we were able to make it tough for him on most occasions."

Liberty held Queens without a double-digit scorer Friday. The Royals shot 37 percent (18-for-49) from the floor, hitting 9-of-19 from beyond the arc despite just 9-for-30 from two-point range. The Flames limited the Royals to .828 points per possession, including 6-for-23 on layups. Dye and Chris Ashby paced Queens with nine points apiece.

The Flames placed three scorers in double figures. McGhee contributed 18, adding six boards and four helpers. Kyle Rode added 14, hitting 4-of-9 from the deck and 4-of-4 from the line. Blake Preston scored 10 points in the first half, marking the 10th time this season the redshirt senior from Charlotte has reached double-digits. Venzant added 10 caroms, contributing to Liberty's totals of 40 rebounds and 13 offensive boards.

Liberty flexed its muscle in the paint, outscoring Queens, 42-18, in the lane. The Flames also added 22 points off 14 Queens miscues. Liberty shot 46 percent (27-for-59) on the night, despite hitting just 24 percent from distance.

The teams now turn their attention to the ASUN conference tournament. Queens secured the ninth seed in the tourney and will do battle with 10th-seeded FGCU in a neutral-site game at Kennesaw State Monday night. That game is slated for a 7:00 (Eastern) tip, with streaming over ESPN+. The winner will square off with top-seeded Kennesaw State the next night.

Liberty, meanwhile, will return to action Tuesday, facing off with the winner between seventh-seeded North Florida and eighth-seeded Bellarmine. The opening-round matchup between the Ospreys and Knights will take place in Lynchburg Monday night, with the tip set for 7:00 (Eastern) over ESPN+. Liberty will then host the winner Tuesday night, again starting at 7:00.


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