BOILING SPRINGS, NC. — The 2017 calendar year is about to come to a close, but not before one more game for most teams across the college basketball world.
Saturday brings forth a full slate of games, one that is full of teams rounding out their non-conference slate, while others get their first taste of conference action. There are some top 25 battles, and a battle between a pair of 12-2 teams from the West Coast Conference that will definitely peak the interest of any fan across the country.
One of the conferences that will embark on conference play is the Big South Conference. One of the league’s front-runners, the Liberty Flames, get Big South play underway with a road contest against the Gardner-Webb Runnin’ Bulldogs.
The Flames swept the season series with Gardner-Webb a season ago, and haven’t lost to the Runnin’ Bulldogs since the 2014-15 season, a streak of four straight wins.
Here’s what you need to know in advance of the Flames’ conference opener with Gardner-Webb on Saturday evening.
For the Liberty Flames, the name of the game has been defense through their first 13 games in 2017-18. Coming into Saturday, the Flames rank 15th in the country in terms of scoring defense, allowing an average of 61.5 points per game. Add in their scoring offense (77.3 ppg), and the Flames have a +15.8 advantage on the scoreboard.
Leading the way for the Flames has been Lovell Cabbil and Scottie James. Cabbil leads the team in scoring, averaging 13.1 points per game and a team-high 3.1 assists, while James is the team’s top rebounder with an average of 8.8 boards per night. James is also averaging 12.7 points per contest, giving the Flames a talented duo to carry the load on both ends of the floor.
James’ 8.8 rebounds per game rank 60th in the nation through Friday’s games. He had a streak of nine games with at least six rebounds to start the season, and has 11 such performances over the course of the season. The 6’7” sophomore will look to impact the game on the glass again against Gardner-Webb on both ends of the floor, and create second-chance opportunities for the Flames on the offensive end of the floor.
Liberty has won four of its last five games, and seven of its last nine after dropping the first two games of the 2017 Paradise Jam. At 9-4, the Flames have solidified themselves as a top contender in the Big South Conference, but will have to pass their first road test of conference play on Saturday.
It was an up-and-down non-conference slate for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, who enter Saturday’s game with a 5-8 record overall. They started the season out with a three game losing streak, but followed that up with back-to-back wins. Then, another three game slide hit the Runnin’ Bulldogs. They enter Saturday riding another two game winning streak, and hope to make it three straight at the expense of the Flames.
With the transfer of Laquincy Rideau following last season, junior guard David Efianayi has assumed the role of lead guard on the offensive end of the floor. The native of Orlando, FL is averaging a team-high 17.1 points per game on 44.6% shooting from the floor. He has four straight games with double digit points, and is averaging 17.8 points per game over that stretch (2-2 record).
Up front, junior forward DJ Laster has continued his progression on both ends of the floor. The 6’6” native of Pensacola, FL is averaging a career-best 15.2 points per game, up from 7.9 points per game as a sophomore. Add in his 6.5 rebounds and 41.7% shooting from three point range, and Laster is becoming a weapon on both ends of the court for Gardner-Webb.
Laster opened the season with three double-doubles over the team’s first five contests, and has at least five rebounds on 10 occasions. He will battle with James inside for rebounds all night, and that match-up could be the key to victory for either team.
Players to Watch
Liberty – Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz
Point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz started out slow in non-conference play, but ended with his best game of the season against the Alabama State Hornets to cap off the New Orleans Shootout. The sophomore posted 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists in the Flames’ 87-70 win over the Hornets. For the season, Pacheco-Ortiz is averaging 9.8 points, 2.6 rebounds, and 2.1 assists per game, while shooting 46.9% from the floor. Against a Gardner-Webb team that has its own talented back court, Pacheco-Ortiz will look to get his teammates involved on every possession and facilitate the offense.
Gardner-Webb – Liam O’Reilly
As one of just three seniors on the 2017-18 roster, guard Liam O’Reilly’s role goes far beyond on-court production. O’Reilly brings veteran experience to a young roster for the Runnin’ Bulldogs, and is looked at as a leader, both on and off the court. That doesn’t mean he can’t produce on the scoreboard, as O’Reilly ranks third on the team with an average of 12.5 points per contest. Add in his 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists per contest, and O’Reilly brings a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor. He posted 14 points, seven assists, and four steals in the Runnin’ Bulldogs’ win over Toccoa Falls before the Christmas break, and will look to replicate that performance against one of the nation’s top defensive units in the country in the Flames.
Liberty is known for its defense this season, having held opponents to 70 or fewer points on nine occasions. As for Gardner-Webb, they have only scored more than 70 points against a Division I opponent on four occasions.
The Runnin’ Bulldogs have won back-to-back games, and will look to continue their streak in their conference opener. However, the Flames are one of the hottest teams in the Big South Conference, having won four of their past five games. Their nine non-conference wins are the most for the program since the 2008-09 season.
Liberty will carry the momentum they built from non-conference play into Big South action, and open up with a win over Gardner-Webb.
Liberty – 71
Gardner-Webb – 61
– T. Bennett