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Liberty completes sweep of North Alabama

Liberty completes sweep of North Alabama

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North Alabama broke out of a two-game offensive funk to open the second half Tuesday against Liberty. The Lions made four straight shots, including several contested looks, and started playing with confidence.

That feel-good moment was over as quickly as it started.

Liberty’s defense returned to form and suffocated North Alabama, allowing the Flames to pull away and claim a 74-54 victory to complete the series sweep at Liberty Arena.

“I thought our guys had a consistency that warranted a chance to win tonight,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “I thought we were hard to play against defensively on most occasions.”

The Flames (19-5, 10-2 ASUN Conference) have won eight straight games and meet Bellarmine in a winner-take-all matchup at noon Saturday inside Freedom Hall in Louisville, Kentucky.

The ASUN announced Monday night Liberty and Bellarmine (13-5, 10-2) will play only one game this weekend, and the winner will secure the league’s regular-season title and No. 1 seed for next week’s conference tournament in Jacksonville, Florida.

The first meeting between the programs is scheduled to be broadcast on ESPNU.

“It definitely puts some excitement in the game,” Liberty guard Darius McGhee said. McGhee led all scorers with 24 points on 7-of-13 shooting. He shot 6 of 11 from 3-point range. “I think guys are just ready to lock in and get these next couple of practices and get our max effort in and be ready when the ball is tipped up.”

Liberty finished its home schedule with a perfect 13-0 mark inside the new $65 million Liberty Arena. The Flames extended their home winning streak to 36 games, which includes a 17-0 record last season in the Vines Center.

“To have another season where we went unbeaten at home is really a blessing, especially in a year like we had with COVID-19 and all the restrictions and the testing,” McKay said. “It is a resilient group and they played well today. It was exciting to see our effort.”

The sweep of the Lions (10-10, 6-8) featured identical scores — 74-54 — to mark the first time in Liberty’s Division I history it won both games in a season series against a conference opponent by the same score.

“I think we just came into the weekend with a great mindset,” Flames forward Kyle Rode said after scoring 13 points and pulling down six rebounds. “We wanted to be who we are offensively and defensively, and the score just so happened to be identical.”

Liberty and High Point played three times in the 2010-11 season, and two games featured final scores of 66-60. The Flames won a regular-season game at High Point, while the Panthers won a Big South Conference quarterfinal game in Lynchburg.

The victories over UNA were spearheaded by McGhee’s scoring and a relentless defense that made it difficult for the Lions to get quality looks.

McGhee scored 53 points in the two games and scored 20 or more points for the fourth time in his last six games.

He’s made six 3s in each of his last three games and shot 19 of 34 in that stretch against North Alabama (twice) and North Florida.

The junior guard made at least six 3s twice in his first 91 collegiate games (seven earlier this season against Mississippi State and six during his freshman season at FGCU).

“I think you just focus on making the correct play each time,” McGhee said. “ … You’re just focused on making sure it’s the best shot within the offense, whether it’s for yourself or kicking it to someone else.”

The Flames shot 44.9% from the field Tuesday and shined offensively while limiting UNA’s chances on offense.

The Lions shot 36.8% Tuesday after shooting 37.5% Monday.

They made four straight shots at the beginning of the second half, then made only two of their next 11 from the field as Liberty extended its lead to 54-37 with 11:52 remaining.

McGhee, fresh off a 29-point performance in Monday’s 20-point victory over the Lions, picked up where he left off. The junior scored 11 of Liberty’s first 15 points as the Flames seized control early at 15-9 with 13 minutes remaining.

The 5-foot-9 guard attempted four field goals in that span, all from 3-point range, and made three. McGhee was the only Liberty player to make a field goal in the opening 7 1/2 minutes until Keegan McDowell’s open 3 from the right wing at the 12:05 mark.

“Even when Darius doesn’t score, he attracts the defense to him, so that opens it up to all of us,” Rode said. “That’s just another component to his game that some people may not see if he doesn’t score a whole lot in one night. It’s because the defense knows he can go off at any given time and has to honor him.”

McDowell joined McGhee and Rode in double figures with 11 points on 3-of-5 shooting.

UNA guard Jamari Blackmon scored 17 points to pace the Lions. He tallied nine in the first half and then scored eight points on UNA’s first three possessions of the second half.

Blackmon didn’t score again.

Mervin James added 11 points and six rebounds.

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