CHARLOTTE – Liberty routinely refers to its program pillars: Play Hard, Play Smart, Play Together, Play With Purpose.
For much of the day Friday – especially in the second half – the Flames lived up to those pillars. Few sequences better epitomized those program expectations than a play where Liberty forward Kyle Rode dove for a loose ball, saved it, then called a time out, where he was greeted at the bench by every member of the Flames’ traveling party.
That mentality – oh, and 41 combined points from Darius McGhee and Shiloh Robinson – guided Liberty to a 74-64 victory at the Spectrum Center in the opening contest of the Naismith Hall of Fame Shootout.
“I liked the way our team played today,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said after the game. “They were very selfless in nature. That’s who they are. I thought we were connected to a degree that warranted a victory today.”
East Carolina (8-3) jumped ahead early, taking a 10-4 lead on the strength of two Vance Jackson triples. A J.J. Miles connection from distance grew the lead to double digits at 21-11. Liberty (7-4) battled back, unleashing a 15-4 run that gave the Flames their first lead of the afternoon at 26-25 on a Robinson layup at the 4:36 mark. ECU then went on a 7-0 run of its own, giving the Pirates an advantage they would take to the interval.
ECU led by as many as five in the early going of the second stanza before Liberty again flexed its interior muscle. The Flames went on a 12-0 run over a three-minute period, keyed largely by Robinson and Darius McGhee. Robinson grabbed a rebound and scored on a putback in traffic to give Liberty the lead at 44-42, part of his five points in the burst.
The Flames’ advantage continued to grow, owing to a 19-6 stretch that put Liberty ahead by eight. ECU clawed back, drawing within four on two Miles free throws with 5:05 remaining. Liberty punched back with a 9-0 string, extending the margin to 13. East Carolina was sent to the mat by the final stretch, never pulling within fewer than 10 before the final horn.
“After a good start, I thought our shot selection became questionable. I thought that really changed the complexion of the game,” East Carolina coach Joe Dooley said. “The way they shot the ball and maneuvered on offense in the second half was very impressive.
“They threw the ball inside and I thought that really bothered us, also. I’m very disappointed with the way we played for about a 10-minute stretch in the second half.”
“I thought we did a much better job on the glass (in the second half),” McKay said. “I think they only had two offensive rebounds in the second half. In the first half, I didn’t quite love what we did, but in the second half, I thought we were really good.”
McGhee led all scorers with 27 for Liberty. The senior from Roxboro, N.C., connected on 10-of-26 shots for the Flames, with half of those coming from beyond the arc.
“He’s a special kid. There’s not many like him,” McKay said of McGhee. “I think he’s got a great future ahead of him as a basketball player, but I think his legacy will live long at Liberty.”
“I thought McGhee was, by far, the best player in the game,” Dooley commented. “He’s intriguing because – where you have to guard him is different than where you have to guard a lot of college players.
“He can make really tough shots, and he does. That’s why Ritchie does such a great job with him, because he gives him the confidence to take those shots -- and percentage-wise, he makes them, too.”
Robinson received game MVP honors, finishing one board shy of a double-double to go along with his 14-point effort.
“All individual achievements are based off the team,” Robinson said. “I have some really good teammates and excellent coaches, and we were able to go out there and execute.”
Forwards Kyle Rode and Blake Preston joined Robinson in double figures, respectively tallying 12 and 10. The duo helped guide Liberty to a 38-24 advantage in the paint and a tied finish at 36 on the boards.
Tristen Newton and Vance Jackson each poured home 15 for the Pirates. Miles contributed 11 to the ECU cause. The Pirates connected on just 32 percent (8-for-25) of their second-half shots, with just two of their nine three-point tries finding the net.
Liberty now travels to Honolulu, Hawaii, to take part in the Diamond Head Classic. Their first game will be next Wednesday, December 22, against Northern Iowa. That game is slated for a 3:00 (Eastern) tip. East Carolina welcomes Southern Miss to Minges Coliseum next Tuesday for a noon start.