ASHEVILLE, N.C. — It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
March is now in full swing, which means post-season basketball is upon us. Conference tournaments have begun across the country, and teams are looking to build some momentum and advance to a post-season tournament. Every team has their sights set on the NCAA Tournament, and winning their conference tournament would guarantee them a spot in the field of 68.
On Friday night, the Big South Conference will have its semi-finals games take place inside Kimmel Arena in Asheville, North Carolina. Three of the top four seeds still remain, along with the fifth-seed Liberty Flames. The first of two semi-final games has the Radford Highlanders taking on the Winthrop Eagles.
In the second semi-final, the Flames square off against the top-seed UNC Asheville Bulldogs, who won the Big South regular season title by a game over both Radford and Winthrop.
The Bulldogs and Flames met twice during the regular season, with both teams winning on the road. UNC Asheville rolled past the Flames by 16 points on January 21st, and the loss was one of five straight at the time for Liberty. In their last meeting, however, the Flames got some revenge on the Bulldogs, in the form of a thrilling overtime victory.
Liberty forced overtime on a buzzer-beating layup from Scottie James, who took a full court inbounds pass from Keegan McDowell. The Flames then outscored the Bulldogs 13-0 in the extra frame to pick up the 82-69 victory, ending the Bulldogs’ 21-game home winning streak in the process.
The two teams will take to the court inside Kimmel Arena on Friday night for the rubber match in the three game series. Both teams picked up a win in their Big South quarterfinal match-ups, and will be looking to advance to the tournament finals on Sunday afternoon.
Liberty had the task of taming Chris Clemons, who led the conference in scoring by averaging more than 24 points per contest. Add in the play of Andrew Eudy and Marcus Burk, and the Campbell Fighting Camels were a dangerous four-seed in the tournament.
However, the Flames came out of the gate strong, and took control of the game early. They led by 10 at halftime, at 37-27, and carried a lead throughout the entire second half. Campbell never threatened the Flames’ lead, and Liberty rolled to the 73-59 victory.
Scottie James had 14 points and nine rebounds, while Myo Baxter-Bell posted 14 points of his own off the bench in the win. Baxter-Bell was a perfect 7-of-7 from the floor on the day. Caleb Homesley added 12 points and eight rebounds in 16 minutes in a reserve role to help guide the Flames into the semi-finals.
As for the Bulldogs, they had a tougher time in their quarter-final match-up against the eighth-seed Charleston Southern Buccaneers. After beating the Presbyterian Blue Hose in the First Round on Wednesday, the Buccaneers gave the Bulldogs a fight on Thursday.
While the Bulldogs led for the majority of the game, the Buccaneers made things interesting down the stretch. With 1:16 to play, a pair of free throws from Travis McConico brought Charleston Southern to within three, at 69-66. That was as close as they would get, as UNC Asheville held on for the 71-66 victory to advance to the semi-finals.
Once again, the pair of Ahmad Thomas and MaCio Teague led the way for the Bulldogs. Both scored 17 points apiece to pace the offensive attack for the Bulldogs. Raekwon Miller flirted with a triple double, recording 12 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists while playing the full 40 minutes.
Entering Friday night, UNC Asheville leads the all-time series with Liberty, 40-21.
This season, UNC Asheville has just one loss on their home floor, and it came at the hands of Liberty back on January 21st. The Bulldogs will look to exact some revenge on the Flames for the loss in their last meeting, while Liberty will look to continue their strong play and punch a ticket into the Big South finals on Sunday afternoon.
Tip-off is set for approximately 8:00pm EST on Friday night.
– T. Bennett