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Pacheco-Ortiz delivers winning plays for Liberty and Puerto Rico

Pacheco-Ortiz delivers winning plays for Liberty and Puerto Rico

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His Liberty men’s basketball teammates were decked out in white warmup apparel as the Vines Center began to fill up Jan. 9 against North Alabama, yet Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz was sporting a blue shirt that was more than two years old.

The fabric has faded from wear since the senior point guard first put it on Oct. 26, 2017, when the Flames played at VCU in a game that raised money for hurricane relief efforts. The red cursive letters with white outline that spell Puerto Rico, emblazoned on the front of the shirt, though, remain vividly bright.

On this night, the island was again on Pacheco-Ortiz’s mind as he prepared to lead the Flames against the Lions. He had a modest night — nine points, four rebounds, three assists and two turnovers in a 63-52 victory — and played with the same poise he has displayed during his illustrious college career.

Puerto Rico was hit with a pair of devastating hurricanes in 2017 and earthquakes have rattled the U.S. territory since early January, yet each natural disaster has brought the best out of Pacheco-Ortiz as he plays for his family back in Ponce and the Liberty teammates who have become like family to him over four years.

“Georgie’s a really special young man. He’s very conscientious of what’s going on in his native country, and he asked us to pray for him,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said after the game against UNA. “He doesn’t ask anything — Georgie, he’s, ‘What can I do for you?’ I know it’s been a burden of his. They’ve had a couple of natural disasters that our heart breaks for. I love him. …

“We stand with him, we support him. I love the fact that he will ask his brothers, his family for something that he needs. His play on the court … he does such a good job of running a team.”

‘Everyone knows what’s going on back home’

Pacheco-Ortiz’s calm, steady and reassuring presence on the court has been tested by the natural disasters that have caused widespread destruction throughout Puerto Rico.

His family, located in Ponce, was one of the fortunate ones unaffected by hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. The disasters prompted Liberty and VCU teaming up for the exhibition game to raise money for relief efforts on the island.

Recently, when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake and aftershocks hit the south side of the island —where Ponce is located — in early January, his family avoided significant loss.

Still, Pacheco-Ortiz said his family wakes up in the middle of the night worrying the house’s structure could be compromised by smaller earthquakes or aftershocks.

“I know a lot of people around the world are helping Puerto Rico,” Pacheco-Ortiz said in mid-January. “I’m sure I don’t have to do anything to make people notice that Puerto Rico needs help. Everybody knows what’s going on back home. … My parents and family talk to me and coach me just to keep going and to keep focusing on school and basketball.”

Pacheco-Ortiz’s teammates have been his backbone during the trying times, as well as three of his best friends from Puerto Rico who moved to the United States with the singular goal of playing Division I basketball.

Ivan Gandia-Rosa at ASUN rival North Florida, Jesus Cruz at Fairfield, Lenadro Allende, who played two seasons at The Citadel before transferring to Division II Berry University, and Pacheco-Oritz remain in contact daily through a group text.

“Sometimes you go to different schools in the United States, really far apart, and you lose the communication with people sometimes,” Gandia-Rosa said. “Me and him and Jesus and Leandro, … we have always kept in touch.”

Pacheco-Ortiz and Gandia-Rosa have known each other since Pacheco-Ortiz was 10. The two are used to playing on the same basketball court.

They played against each other growing up and have been on national teams together since Pacheco-Ortiz was in the seventh grade.

“For those national teams, they had us stay in villas and all that, but we always stayed together, practiced together,” Gandia-Rosa said. “We’d be together the whole day, basically.”

Gandia-Rosa is from Carguas and has endured the same pain as Pacheco-Ortiz when the natural disasters have impacted the island.

Gandia-Rosa said his family lost all of their personal items from their house in Caguas during the 2017 hurricanes. They were relatively unaffected by the latest earthquakes.

The house’s structure remained intact following the hurricanes. He and his four siblings pitched in and purchased new windows for the house as a Christmas present to their parents.

“We’ve been through a lot, I think a lot of adversity, since we got here to the states, trying to make our dreams come true,” Pacheco-Ortiz said, “and it actually happened. Who would have thought that we were going to play against each other? We’ve been together, playing against each other, playing together on the national team. We’ve spent a lot of time together, so we know each other very well.”

‘Your lead dogs’

Pacheco-Ortiz and Gandia-Rosa have been consistent floor generals for their respective teams. They are part of the reason the Flames (24-3, 10-2) and the Ospreys (18-10, 11-2) are battling for sole possession of first place in the ASUN Conference with their second matchup of the season set for 7 tonight at the Vines Center.

Since Liberty joined the ASUN Conference prior to the 2018-19 season, the teams have split the four meetings. The average margin of victory is five points.

The home team has won all four games.

“With these two guys as your lead dogs, so to speak, who are seniors and have the talent that they’ve both been gifted with around them, because of their experience, because of their international play, because of their ability to always help their teammates and make their teammates better, I think that in and of itself is probably one of the biggest reasons these games have always been the way they’ve been,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said. “I think neither one of those two, along with their teammates, wants to allow their team to not be in position to make that one or two plays that helps get you that victory.”

Pacheco-Ortiz has been making those types of winning plays since he was inserted into the starting lineup early in his freshman season.

He is the program’s all-time winningest player with 96 career victories and one of 29 players to score more than 1,000 points (1,207), and he’s on pace to become the fifth player to shoot 40% or better from 3-point range for his career. (He’s currently at 40% by making 166 of his 415 attempts from behind the arc.)

He will become the fifth player in program history to play in 4,000 career minutes Thursday. He averages 31.4 minutes per game this season and needs 11 to reach 4,000.

McKay has compared Pacheco-Ortiz to former University of Virginia point guard London Perrantes for the past several seasons, and he recently likened his floor general to a kid working on a puzzle — “the kids puzzle with the big pieces and there’s like eight pieces” — explaining how his point guard knows exactly what to do with the pieces on any given night.

Pacheco-Ortiz had to be more of a scorer in his first two seasons but has evolved into a facilitator during the past two campaigns.

That doesn’t mean he can’t hit shots when needed, especially in high-pressure situations. He has hit several 3s as the shot clock was running down, his most iconic corner triple coming in the final minute of last season’s ASUN tournament title game at Lipscomb. The basket gave the Flames a four-point lead in the back-and-forth affair, which fell in favor of Liberty and led to program’s fourth NCAA Tournament berth.

“Georgie will look at the puzzle and figure out which one goes where on the given puzzle,” McKay added. “Some games he scores, some games he assists; his defense is really improved. I just think he’s one of those kids that you just win with.”

Gandia-Rosa has provided the same type of leadership for UNF since transferring from the College of Central Florida. He has scored more than 1,000 career points and is on pace to become the first player in ASUN Conference history to lead the league in assists in three consecutive seasons.

‘An amazing pride’

The natural disasters have only deepened the love Pacheco-Ortiz and Gandia-Rosa have for their homeland and strengthened the bonds they share with their families.

“It’s a huge pride. It’s an amazing pride for me. We’re American citizens, but there’s a difference in the cultures, so I feel, like, that pride, and I carry it with me everywhere,” Gandia-Rosa said. “Being from Puerto Rico, sometimes people overlook you and they don’t think that we can do certain stuff, but that pride in where we come from is the place where everybody pushes forward and goes to work every day. The support I’ve gotten in this school and the coaching staff and my teammates [has] been great. It’s a huge pride. I feel like every Puerto Rican has it. It’s, like, instilled in us. It’s like carrying a chip on our shoulders every day.”

Pacheco-Ortiz planned for his parents and aunt to visit Lynchburg for his Senior Night, a Saturday game against Stetson. The plan originally was for them to arrive Saturday, but instead, the three came a week early, in time to watch him play three games, bookended by the Flames’ win last Saturday over NJIT and his home finale this weekend.

He is cherishing those moments he gets to spend with them. “It’s a vacation for them,” he added. “They’re able to sleep and just have fun and just ... enjoy the time with me.”

He said his parents are looking forward to seeing him and Gandia-Rosa on the same court again, just like when they suited up against each other in Puerto Rico, then shared a meal after practices or games.

“We are really close. We were close once we started playing against each other when I was 11 years old,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “His family is really close to my family. We’ve been playing against each other literally our whole life and played together a few times. It’s always great to be able to play against him. This time, we got the chance that my parents are in town and they’re able to watch him play. My family loves how he plays, too. It’s going to be really good for us. It’s going to be a great experience.”

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

Damien Sordelett covers Liberty University athletics and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.

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