SAN JOSE, Calif. — Caleb Homesley has developed a knack for knowing when he needs to take over on the offensive end this season for Liberty.
It is a trait that has served the 6-foot-6 redshirt junior well on a team that is known more for its unselfishness than a single player taking over and impacting the game through his scoring.
He initiated the Flames’ second-half run in a win at UCLA in late December. And in Atlantic Sun Conference play, Homesley showcased his ability to take his defender off the dribble and score as the shot clock wound down.
An eight-possession stretch that lasted five minutes Friday night was Homesley’s opportunity to display, on a national stage, how much of an impact he can have on a game’s outcome.
The Indian Trail, North Carolina, native scored 14 points in the Flames’ rally from a double-digit deficit against Mississippi State at the SAP Center, where Liberty claimed the program’s first NCAA Tournament victory.
“It makes it very special,” Homesley said after Saturday’s practice in preparation for Sunday’s Round of 32 matchup here against Virginia Tech. “ … I just think it was the positions I was in, and the ball was going in for me. It was fun. Most of it I don’t remember. I was just scoring a lot.”
Homesley’s career-high 30-point performance gained national notoriety as he helped the Flames (29-6) post their first victory over a Southeastern Conference program and extended their stay in the Big Dance.
He made his last four shots and shot 7 of 8 from the field to close the game.
“I just think he was cookin’. He felt it,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “I think when he got fouled … and we were down 10 and he went to the line and made three, just seeing the ball go in consistently, I think, usually lends for a heightened sense of the rim being bigger. It seemed like for Caleb it was like that.”
Homesley’s breakout performance was nothing new to McKay or his teammates. In fact, he was on his way to delivering those types of outings on a more consistent basis in his sophomore season when he rounded into form two seasons removed from a major injury.
He was averaging 12.9 points and shooting better than 44 percent from the field when he tore the ACL and MCL in his right knee in the 2016-17 season’s 10th game against Princeton.
That injury was similar to the ACL tear he suffered in his left knee that cost him his final season at Porter Ridge High School in Indian Trail.
Homesley needed a season to get back into the flow of the game before emerging as a consistent presence on the court.
“When I was coming off my first injury when I came my freshman year, I was a little out of shape, wasn’t used to the college experience with the physical side and everything,” he said. “I thought that I worked my way up into it, and then I think my sophomore year is when it kind of clicked and I was starting to have a big season, and then I ended up getting hurt again.”
McKay had to push Homesley through that up-and-down freshman season. The coach didn’t recruit Homesley to Liberty — former coach Dale Layer and his staff found Homesley during his junior season in high school — and McKay thought at one point Homesley wasn’t cut out for the Division I game.
“I told him he wasn’t going to make it here,” McKay recalled after the Flames’ regular-season home finale against Kennesaw State in late February. “He was the laziest, softest, non-workingest dude that had that much talent that I had ever seen.
“Now he’s a pro. … He’s got a lot more ahead of him if he keeps pursuing it the way he is. He’s special.”
McKay saw enough during that shortened sophomore season to know what Homesley could do during the 2018-19 campaign. McKay met weekly with Homesley over the past summer to make sure his star was progressing, and strength coach Henry Barrera continued to work on strengthening Homesley’s right knee.
Homesley came off the bench at the beginning of the season, but he emerged in the starting lineup in mid-December and has started 26 straight games. He scored in double figures in 21 of those starts and, including Friday’s victory, has eclipsed the 20-point mark three times. He scored 23 points in a nine-point loss to Alabama in the Rocket City Classic in Huntsville, Alabama in mid-December, and then 21 in the victory at UCLA in late December.
Friday night’s performance was just another example of how Homesley has rounded into form and become more assertive on the offensive end. He ferociously attacks the rim, gains confidence in his perimeter shot and finds success with his drives to the basket.
The confidence is reflected in his scoring output. His scoring average jumped from 7.8 as a redshirt sophomore to 12.5 this season, he’s shooting 47 percent from the field and has made a career-high 55 3-pointers.
“I thought that last year I was still in that mental stage where I wasn’t sure if I could do it or not,” Homesley said, “but then this year it all clicked.”