Kyle Rode didn’t play like a freshman making his collegiate debut Friday night.
Take for instance this spot for the Liberty forward: Standing at the free throw line with a couple of seconds on the clock and needing to convert to sew up a thrilling victory, he didn’t flinch.
Rode calmly made both free throws to quell Radford’s frantic final-minute rally, and the Flames opened the season with a 66-60 victory over the Highlanders in a packed Vines Center.
The nail-biting finish kept all of the 7,872 in the Vines Center on their feet for the final moments. It was the largest crowd at the Vines Center since the Flames drew 8,085 for a matinee contest against Clemson on Nov. 17, 2009.
“I really like where we’re going,” Flames coach Ritchie McKay said.
Rode, the 6-foot-7 forward from Lexington Christian Academy in Kentucky, finished with 12 points. He scored all five of his second-half points in the final four minutes to help the Flames (1-0) remain ahead in a tightly contested matchup symbolic of the rivalry that developed between the programs in the Big South Conference.
Carlik Jones, whose fingerprints were all over the previous thrilling finish in the 2018 Big South tournament championship game at the Dedmon Center, single-handedly willed the Highlanders (0-1) back into contention.
The Big South preseason player of the year led all scorers by scoring 26 of his career-high 31 points over the final 20 minutes.
The guard was integral in the Highlanders trimming an 18-point second-half deficit down to five, 45-40, on his contested layup with 5:06 remaining.
He later scored seven points in an 18-second stretch as Radford cut the Flames’ lead to 64-60 with 12.1 seconds remaining.
However, he missed a free throw that would have completed a four-point play, and Rode made a pair of free throws to seal Liberty’s victory.
“He’s hard to keep in front,” Radford coach Mike Jones said of his star guard. “That’s something that he’s always had.”
Liberty redshirt senior forward Caleb Homesley, the ASUN Conference’s preseason player of the year, scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the second half. He did most of his damage at the charity stripe by going 9 for 10 over the final 20 minutes.
Myo Baxter-Bell scored seven of his nine points in the second half, and Elijah Cuffee and Shiloh Robinson each scored eight points.
Travis Fields scored 15 points on 4-of-10 shooting for Radford.
The Highlanders trailed 33-19 at the half and were able to trim into the deficit by shooting 45 percent and committing only two turnovers in the second half.
“Our guys got heart and they kind of locked in to the things that we’ve been talking about in the second half,” Mike Jones said, “and we were able to make a game out of it.”
Friday night’s showdown at the Vines Center was the first meeting between the programs since Carlik Jones’ game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer lifted the Highlanders to a thrilling triumph in the 2018 Big South tournament championship game at the Dedmon Center.
The teams faced off eight times in a three-season stretch that coincided with McKay returning to guide Liberty’s program. Radford won six of those contests, and six of the outcomes were decided less than five points.
It appeared that Liberty was going to run away to a comfortable victory in the first half.
The Flames assisted on 11 of 13 made first-half field goals and used a 15-3 run spanning 6 1/2 minutes to take a 33-13 lead with 2:22 left in the opening half.
But the Highlanders scored six quick points before halftime to build momentum and turn the matchup into one reminiscent of the previous conference showdowns.
“I knew it was going to be a dogfight,” McKay said.