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Liberty withstands challenge from Eastern Kentucky, advances to fourth ASUN final in five seasons

Liberty freshman guard Colin Porter turned in 25 points in his team's ASUN semifinal victory Thursday. (Photo: Liberty Athletics)

For five seasons, Liberty star Darius McGhee has carried the Flames. McGhee has been part of three ASUN championship teams, won three-straight ASUN Player of the Year awards, and earned almost every possible plaudit. While McGhee had another stellar night Thursday, his heir apparent took his own star turn.

Colin Porter -- who reclassified to attend Liberty early during what would ordinarily have been his senior season in high school -- put on his best impression of McGhee, canning 10-of-16 shots from the field and hitting five threes to tally 25 points and help guide his Flames to a 79-73, semifinal victory over Eastern Kentucky in Liberty Arena.

"I'm incredibly impressed with Eastern Kentucky, (coach) A.W. (Hamilton), his staff, and their players," Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said after the game. "That's a really, really good team and a really good program. To be able to advance -- we earned it. They kept punching. I was really pleased with our guys' response."

As key as McGhee was to the response, Porter and fellow freshman Zach Cleveland were equally vital. Though Cleveland did not pile up as gaudy of a stat line as his teammates, his defense and intangibles loomed large.

"That dude's just tough as nails. He can actually shoot and score, but he never does it," McKay said of Cleveland. "I thought his energy, his defense, and his rebound ability -- I thought it was special.

"Colin Porter, you know how I feel about him," McKay continued. "He's got a long, special career ahead of him. He's unafraid."

"They never (play like freshmen)," McGhee said of his teammates. "I wish you guys could see practices. There's been numerous amounts of practices where each of these guys has dominated in their own way. To see them come out tonight and showcase it is big time, but we see it all the time in practice."

Porter's stat line was impressive, to be sure, but hidden among the 25 points was the true treasure of the Kentucky native's performance. Porter recorded zero turnovers -- his fourth-straight game without a miscue and his fifth game in a row with one or fewer turnovers.

"I had great spacing and great teammates," Porter said. "They were able to crowd the paint sometimes and kick it out, and the shots were just falling."

Liberty (26-7) finds itself in familiar territory following last year's semifinal elimination on its home floor by eventual champion Bellarmine. The Flames now set their sights on top-seeded Kennesaw State, who knocked out fifth-seeded Lipscomb, 80-71, in Thursday's other semifinal. Liberty will play the ASUN final Thursday at the KSU Convocation Center -- the site of one of the Flames' three regular-season conference defeats.

"It's a great feeling," McGhee said. "My goal was to handle my responsibilities to make sure that these guys can experience something great. I want to do whatever I can to make sure that I can put these guys in position to experience that. The more you can treat it like any other game, the better you are."

"Can I wait? I'll gather my thoughts," McKay joked when asked for an assessment of Sunday's game. "That was a great game that we played there. Amir and his staff have done a fabulous job. We get it. We know how hard it'll be. That environment tonight (Liberty Arena set another attendance record with a crowd of 4,043) was similar to what they had in Kennesaw. I expect it'll be fairly raucous."

McGhee and Porter served as Liberty's two double-figure scorers, combining for 44 points on 18-for-37 shooting. The pair knocked down 10 threes and grabbed 11 total rebounds. The Flames shot 44.4 percent (28-for-63) from the deck while hoisting 32 threes and hitting 14. Liberty outrebounded EKU, 35-33, and enjoyed a 14-2 advantage in points off turnovers.

Eastern Kentucky (20-13) shot 52 percent (30-for-58) from the field. Tae Tae Blanton guided the Colonels with 23 points on a 9-for-20 shooting performance. Tayshawn Comer added 14 on 6-for-10, while Cooper Robb hit 4-of-8 shots to tally 10. EKU led for nearly 24 minutes in the contest.

Top-seeded Kennesaw State and second-seeded Liberty will do battle Sunday. The Flames will play for their fourth ASUN title in five seasons, while Kennesaw will play for its first Division 1 league title. The Owls have already clinched their first-ever Division 1 postseason berth, having qualified for the conference's automatic NIT bid. Game time is set for 3:00 (Eastern), with coverage over ESPN2.


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