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Liberty delivers stellar defensive effort in win over Bradley

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There wasn’t much Liberty men’s basketball coach Ritchie McKay had to say after Tuesday night’s loss to Northwestern. His players knew why the Wildcats, like two other teams before them, were able to effectively score against the Flames.

Turnovers. It was as simple as that.

When Liberty isn’t able to set its pack-line defense, teams are able to get to the basket or find open perimeter looks. That is one of the most effective ways of beating a defensive-oriented program.

The Flames took better care of the ball Wednesday night. Bradley found out how difficult it is to score against the pack-line.

Darius McGhee scored a game-high 21 points as Liberty held Bradley to its fewest points since the 2018-19 in a 55-44 triumph to conclude the Cancun Challenge Riviera Division at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya in Cancun, Mexico.

“I loved our effort defensively tonight, especially in the first half,” McKay said. “There was a tone and there was a commitment to getting through the hard. We didn’t have a great offensive night; we made a couple of shots when we needed to, and we have a lot of room for improvement. I think when we’re that consistent defensively we’ll have a chance.”

The Flames (3-3) snapped a two-game losing streak by getting back to what made them one of the top mid-major programs in the country.

Liberty held Bradley to 17 first-half points and continued the stingy defensive play into the second half. The Braves (3-3) shot 32% from the field, made 3 of 17 attempts from 3-point range, and had their 112-game streak of scoring 50 or more points snapped.

Bradley was last held to less than 50 points on Jan. 26, 2019, in a 55-37 loss at Missouri State.

“Definitely the way we wanted to respond after last night and the game before that,” Liberty forward Blake Preston said. “Proud of the guys and the way they combated the adversity and pushed through.”

It was the fewest points Liberty has allowed to a Division I team since holding Missouri to 45 points in a 21-point triumph on Dec. 2, 2021, inside Liberty Arena, and the Braves’ 17 first-half points marked the fifth time since the start of the 2020-21 season that the Flames held their opponent to less than 20 points in the opening 20 minutes.

“I thought tonight was the first night we put together 40 minutes of defensive consistency,” McKay said.

Preston had 10 points and nine rebounds in 21 minutes off the bench. Colin Porter had nine points and five assists, and Kyle Rode finished with five points, 10 rebounds and four assists.

Preston’s play in the post led to Bradley forwards Darius Hannah and Connor Linke getting into foul trouble, which opened up opportunities for Preston on several alley-oops from Porter.

“Our coaches thought we could benefit playing a little bit more inside-out as opposed to traditionally playing more four around the arc and the one guy in the high post,” Preston said.

The Flames committed 14 turnovers and that led to 11 points for Bradley.

Those numbers are a significant improvement from Tuesday night against Northwestern when the Wildcats tallied 21 points off 18 Liberty turnovers.

“I think it’s something we talked about. I think the biggest emphasis as far as any change was our offense needs to help our defense out and not put us in disadvantaged situations with turnovers and other stuff like that,” Preston said. “I think you saw that tonight. It was less of an adjustment on any particular thing and more on just trying to get our offense and defense to play cohesively.”

Malevy Leons led the Braves with 17 points and 10 rebounds.

Bradley’s three high-scoring guards — Connor Hickman, Duke Deen and Ville Tahvanainen — combined to score 10 points on 4 of 25 shooting. They missed all nine of their combined 3-point attempts.

Liberty guards Joseph Venzant and Isiah Warfield contributed to the poor shooting. Their length and ability to stay in front of the guards led to a myriad of contested jumpers that found the rim more often than the bottom of the net.

Venzant and Warfield each played more than 20 minutes, while Brody Peebles was scoreless in a season-low six minutes. He had scored in double figures in the Flames’ first four games.

“We have a lot of versatile pieces and sometimes the game necessitates a little bit more defense and sometimes a little bit more offense,” McKay said. “… I like those two [Venzant and Warfield] on the backcourt defensively because they’re really good. They expend so much effort on that end and it’s hard for them offensively a little bit.”

Liberty led 23-17 at the half and used a 9-0 run to open the second half. The Braves cut the deficit to single digits six times, but the Flames had an answer each time with 3s from McGhee, Porter and Rode and layups from Preston and Robinson.

“I’m happy with the response. I think the schedule we’ve played is going to prepare us for the ASUN,” McKay said. “… I think we’ve got six good games under our belt and a little bit more of a rotation established.”

WOMEN’S BASKETBALL

James Madison 67, Liberty 63

Kiki Jefferson scored 12 of her game-high 20 points in the fourth quarter and James Madison repeatedly held off Liberty’s comeback attempts in a win at Atlantic Union Bank Center in Harrisonburg.

The Flames (2-2) lost in their first road game of the season.

Jefferson was 10 of 10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter and scored 16 points in the second half.

Bella Smuda led the Flames with 12 points and seven rebounds. Alise Markova added a career-high 11 points and five rebounds.

Liberty shot 8 of 15 from the field and scored 23 points in a high-scoring fourth quarter.

Mya Berkman converted on a layup with 2:45 remaining to cut the deficit to 55-54, but JMU (4-2) held on by making its final 10 free throws.

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