RADFORD, Va. — Sunday will have an instate rivalry theme to it when it comes to conference tournament championships.
In the Missouri Valley Conference title game, its am all-Illinois affair. The Loyola (IL) Ramblers, who won the regular season title, take on the Illinois State Redbirds for an automatic berth into the Big Dance.
A total of four bids will be secured on Sunday afternoon, as the Big Ten and Atlantic Sun will also crown champions before the day is out.
Kicking off the festivities on Sunday is the Big South Conference, and an all-Virginia match-up will decide who advances to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Liberty Flames, who came into the tournament as the fifth seed, head to Radford, VA to take on the Radford Highlanders, who were seeded second in the field.
Another installment of the Commonwealth Rivalry goes down inside the Dedmon Center at 1:00pm EST on Sunday. Here’s how each team got to the championship pairing.
Liberty has weathered a tough road to get to the title game against the Highlanders. After an up-and-down season that saw them finish at 9-9 in Big South play, the Flames entered the bracket as the fifth seed. That put them on the side of the bracket with the top-seed in the conference, the UNC Asheville Bulldogs.
Up first for the Flames was a date with Chris Clemons and the Campbell Fighting Camels in the quarter-finals. Liberty rolled past Campbell in the opener, taking a 10-point lead at the break and cruising to the 73-59 victory. Scottie James posted 14 points to pace the Flames.
Of the four quarter-final games, Liberty was the only team to win by double figures.
The win over Campbell set up a rubber match with UNC Asheville in the semi-finals. The Flames picked up an overtime win over the Bulldogs in their last outing, ending the Bulldogs’ 21-game home winning streak in the process. It was another close game inside Kimmel Arena in the semi-finals, but the Flames advanced to the finals of the Big South tournament with a 69-64 win.
Liberty was down 15 points with just over 18 minutes left in the game, and came away with the five point win. James posted a double-double of 18 points and 14 rebounds in the win.
As for Radford, they had a tougher time in their quarter-final match-up. They took on the Longwood Lancers for the second game in a row, and the Highlanders were looking to extend their four game winning streak and advance to the semi-finals.
The 10th-seed Lancers gave the Highlanders a fight down to the final buzzer, but Radford held on for the 59-53 victory. Donald Hicks hit a three to break the tie with 34 seconds left, and Ed Polite Jr. preserved the lead with a block on the defensive end with 14 seconds left.
That win set up Radford for a semi-final date with the Winthrop Eagles, who were tied with the Highlanders at 12-6 in Big South play. Once again, the Highlanders were in a tight battle, but they came away victorious once again.
While Winthrop led for most of the second half, the Highlanders took the lead for good on a layup from Christian Bradford with 4:30 to play. They would hold the Eagles scoreless over the final 3:45, and advanced to the final with a 61-52 victory.
Freshman Carlik Jones posted 16 points, three rebounds and four assists in the win for the Highlanders.
Radford has had Liberty’s number this season, posting a 2-0 record during the regular season. They picked up a two-point win in Radford, VA in the first meeting, and rolled past the Flames in Lynchburg to the tune of a 13-point win. The second of two victories over Liberty has come during the Highlanders’ current six game winning streak.
Liberty will look to advance to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013, while Radford is looking to get back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2009.
– T. Bennett