Darius McGhee doesn’t typically set scoring goals for each game he dons a Liberty basketball jersey. The junior guard’s lone focus is doing whatever it takes to help the Flames win, and that usually consists of taking shots and having the confidence of knowing they are going to find the bottom of the basket.
McGhee had plenty of confidence Monday against North Alabama, and the result was a career performance that left the Lions scrambling for answers.
McGhee had career highs of 29 points and 11 field goals, matched his career best with seven 3-pointers, and Liberty overwhelmed North Alabama 74-54 to open the two-game ASUN Conference series at Liberty Arena.
“He’s maybe the most undervalued, underrated player in the country. Not because of his size. … He does whatever it takes to win the game,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said, referencing McGhee’s 5-foot-9 stature. “Darius McGhee could lead the country in scoring, but we don’t need him to. I think he’s got a chance for great success, and obviously he was really good offensively tonight.”
McGhee is starting to hit his scoring stride as the Flames (18-5, 9-2 ASUN) inch closer to the conference tournament scheduled to begin next week. The Roxboro, North Carolina, native has scored 20 or more points in three of his past five games, and he is shooting 31 of 62 (50%) from the field and 20 of 41 (48.7%) from 3-point range in that span.
“Darius always draws the most attention,” Liberty senior guard Elijah Cuffee said. Cuffee scored 13 points on 3-of-5 shooting and added three assists and two rebounds. “I feel like everybody who scouts him knows you can’t let him go off, and I feel like if he does it just makes it easier for us.”
McGhee shot 11 of 19 from the field and 7 of 14 from 3-point range Monday against the Lions (10-9, 6-7). He scored around the rim, either driving to the basket or finishing one of his missed shots on a second-chance effort, and made several of his patented off-balanced 3s that helped the Flames extend their double-digit lead.
McGhee hit 3s on back-to-back possessions that gave the Flames a 62-33 lead with a little less than 13 minutes remaining.
The first triple came off a behind-the-back bounce pass from Kyle Rode on a set play in which UNA lost McGhee in the corner.
“You never know with Kyle Rode. You just know the ball is going to come,” McGhee said. “You can’t really anticipate how he’s going to get it to you. You just know it’s coming, for sure.”
The second came in transition after Drake Dobbs grabbed a long rebound. He delivered an outlet pass to Cuffee, who “wanted to go dunk the ball, but the guy cut me off,” and instead delivered an underhanded pass to a trailing McGhee for an off-balanced, fadeaway 3 from the right corner that gave Liberty its largest lead of the game at 29 points.
“I’ve seen Cuf make that play in transition where he catches it ahead and finishes layups. I wasn’t anticipating him stopping and turning around and passing it,” McGhee said. “That was definitely more unexpected. Kyle’s play was kind of like, we’ve seen the breakdown that they had.”
Blake Preston had eight points and six rebounds for Liberty, which shot 49.1% from the field and 50% from 3-point range.
Rode, Chris Parker and Keegan McDowell scored six points apiece.
C.J. Brim was the only UNA player to score in double figures with 12 points. Mervin James had nine points and nine rebounds.
The Lions went nearly seven minutes without a point between the first and second halves, and the Flames used a 14-0 run to take a 47-24 lead following McGhee’s 3 with 18:04 remaining in the game.
UNA’s 10-possession stretch without a point featured eight missed shots from the field, two missed free throws and a turnover.
“Guys were just communicating and we were executing what we needed to on a consistent basis and we were taking it one possession at a time,” McGhee said. “ … Taking it possession by possession was definitely good to stack those consecutive stops on top of one another.”
McGhee, who hit 3s to end three of the previous four first halves, made a triple with 20.6 seconds left to cap a first half Monday in which the Flames shot 53.1% from the field and 7 of 14 from 3-point range.
North Alabama never cut the deficit below 20 points over the final 14 minutes, but used a stingy full-court press to help get the Lions back into a rhythm after they were forced to not practice much of the past week because of snow and ice in the Shoals area.
“What we saw at the end of the game is much more reflective of what North Alabama has been the entire season,” McKay said. “I think our guys did a good job of getting a lead, but we’ve still got some areas we need to improve on.”