Liberty guard Darius McGhee sinks a triple in Tuesday night's NIT victory. (Photo: Liberty Athletics)
LYNCHBURG, Va. – Nine days is a long time to wait. That’s especially the case when under one second separates your team from five more minutes to battle for a league championship and leaving the floor dejected.
Though Kennesaw State got the confetti shower and NCAA tournament berth Liberty craved, the Flames still secured a solid reward. Liberty got its first-ever postseason NIT bid, claiming a three-seed and a national showcase on ESPN2 from its two-plus-year-old arena. Oh – and that national showcase featured a school that has three Final Fours and two national titles to its credit in the last seven seasons.
Even without most of its students in town, Liberty still used its home-court advantage and added yet another first to the evolving history of Liberty Arena. The Flames battled occasional shooting woes and a powerful Big East opponent, eventually conquering Villanova and earning their first-ever postseason NIT victory with a 62-57 victory over the Wildcats before an announced crowd of 3,252 Tuesday night.
“I have a ton of respect for Villanova and their program, so I think it’s a win that we’ll value a ton,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said after the victory. “You could tell that they were never gonna give up. They were never gonna allow themselves to get too far behind. They’ve got a ton of character and a ton of toughness. So does our team. I’m really proud of our group. We did enough to win the game.”
Liberty (27-8) battled an occasionally icy first half in a back-and-forth affair, struggling to create any separation before a 9-0 Flames burst broke apart a game tied at 23. As great as the run itself was for Liberty, one of the buckets within it had to be particularly encouraging for the home side. Star guard Darius McGhee, who missed all eleven threes he tried in the ASUN championship contest at Kennesaw State, canned one of his two first-half triples to help key the run.
“It was such an aberration for Darius to not make a three-point field goal (at Kennesaw),” McKay said. “We know better. We’ve seen him every day. I think he’s one of the best guards in the country. He’s one of a kind.”
“Anytime you see the ball go in, it gives you a little bit more confidence and motivation,” McGhee added. “We fight really hard to get great shots.”
Villanova (17-17), playing without standouts Justin Moore and Cam Whitmore, created a bit of a fright among the Liberty partisans with its first two second-half possessions. Brandon Slater splashed a triple and Mark Armstrong put home a layup, nearly eliminating the seven-point Liberty halftime advantage. The excitement was short-lived for the Wildcats, though, as Joseph Venzant and McGhee knocked down back-to-back treys to extend the Flames’ lead back to eight. Liberty would not trail again, despite several Villanova charges.
“Congrats to Liberty,” Villanova coach Kyle Neptune said after the game. “They did a great job. They’re very well-coached. I thought their defense was unbelievable. They made a lot of timely shots and they’re a tough team. I’m happy for those guys.”
The win capped an emotional week for the Flames, having gone from the loss at Kennesaw State to missing the NCAA tournament to an historic NIT contest on their home floor. The club reflected on the various feelings after the game.
“I think having the team and the coaches that we do, it’s easy to stay level-headed,” forward Zach Cleveland said after the game. “The coaches do a good job of pouring into us and just keeping us on a steady trajectory.”
“It’s kind of like life,” McGhee added. “There will be highs and there will be lows. The only thing you can really control is your pursuit. In both situations, I don’t think our team pursuit has changed. We’ve always been straightforward, everybody all-in, full-throttle.”
McKay added insight into his team’s mindset.
“I’m of the opinion that we’re not gonna base the success of our program on the outcome,” McKay said. “We’ve been really blessed to be in five championship games in the last six years. That’s an accomplishment in itself. We didn’t get a chance to advance to the NCAA tournament. Those of us that have experienced it, you miss it.
“It’s really hard to be grateful for what you feel entitled to,” McKay continued. “It’s hard to win in college basketball. I just think that the pursuit our guys continue to have to find the best version of themselves – that’s what I’m most proud of. There are young men in that locker room that will impact the world because of who they are as people and the way they navigate tough terrain and adversity. They’re winners in life.”
McGhee parlayed his bounce-back effort into a 26-point night, connecting on 9-of-20 from the field and hitting 5-of-13 from distance. The fifth-year senior dished out four of his team’s 14 assists to go with his team-leading points total. Freshman guard Colin Porter joined McGhee in doubles, scoring 14 in a performance buoyed by an 8-for-13 effort from the line. Fellow freshman Cleveland snared 12 boards, the most ever achieved by a Flame rebounder in Liberty Arena. Liberty shot 38.5 percent (20-fot-52) on the evening, with half of those makes coming from beyond the arc on 26 tries.
Villanova placed three scorers in doubles, playing just seven players in the contest. Slater put home 18, hitting 8-of-13 from the field and finishing a rebound shy of a double-double. Armstrong and Eric Dixon added 12 apiece, with Dixon besting Cleveland by one carom to take the building record for any player. The Wildcats shot 36.9 percent (24-for-65) from the field, hampered by struggles from distance. Villanova hit four of its 26 tries (15.4 percent) from bonus range and worked its way to the line just seven times, hitting five.
“They just made plays defensively,” Neptune said of Liberty. “I thought they just were really scrappy.”
Liberty advances to the second round of the NIT and draws second-seeded Wisconsin in its next outing. The Flames and Badgers will do battle in Madison Sunday, with the game time and ESPN network to be determined later.