South Carolina State men’s basketball coach Murray Gavin delivered a succinct message at halftime Tuesday night: The Bulldogs needed to capitalize on their open looks against Liberty.
There were too many instances in which a shot was rushed or an offensive set was abandoned because of the Flames’ defensive intensity, and Gavin wanted his bunch to settle down and allow the offense to run its course.
Liberty, though, had other plans in delivering its best defensive effort in the Division I era.
The Flames allowed the fewest points against a Division I opponent in program history and woke up from an offensive slumber to pull away for a dominating 65-39 victory before an announced crowd of 3,084 at the Vines Center.
“Liberty’s one of the best defensive teams in the country night in and night out, they defend you that hard,” Gavin said, “and you’ve got to be able to sustain a steady offense over the course of 40 minutes. We weren’t able to do that tonight.”
The Flames joined the Division I ranks for the 1989-90 season and had not held a fellow DI opponent to less than 40 points. Sure, there were non-Division I opponents who were unable to crack the 40-point threshold, but this was the most complete defensive effort the Flames have given since Ritchie McKay’s return to the program five seasons ago.
“Our defense was great tonight,” Flames senior point guard Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz said. “In the first two games [against Radford and Maryland-Eastern Shore], we were good some 20 to 30 minutes of the entire game. But tonight, we were consistent.
“For 40 minutes, we were hard to play against. Our defense was great, and everybody coming off the bench brought energy. I think we did a pretty good job doing that.”
The previous low allowed by the Flames was 40 points by Campbell on Jan. 28, 2017, in McKay’s second season back following a six-year tenure as an assistant at the University of Virginia.
McKay brought the pack-line defense to Lynchburg and is steadily seeing the fruits of the defensive principles he planted upon his arrival.
“I think for us that’s our identity and I thought that we made a stamp on that tonight,” Liberty redshirt senior forward Caleb Homesley said. “Some nights you’re not going have offense, so you have to lean on your defense, and I thought tonight was one of those nights.”
Liberty held the Bulldogs (1-2) to a Vines Center- record 13 points in a first half that featured both teams opening the game with one made field goal in the first 10 minutes.
Liberty finally broke through on the offensive end behind freshman forward Kyle Rode, who scored all seven of his points in a five-possession stretch to help the Flames (3-0) steadily build their lead to double digits with less than four minutes remaining in the first half.
The Flames missed their first seven shots and then connected on 50% of their field-goal attempts over the final 33 1/2 minutes.
“I was concerned when they got a couple of open looks,” Garvin said. “It’s so hard to score against them; if they get up by 10, sometimes that can feel like you’re in a 20-point game. I thought when we got down double digits, we stopped executing, and our guards started pressing to get shots more than letting the offense work for them. They just continued to extend the lead.”
Pacheco-Ortiz led the Flames with a season-high 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting. Homesley had 10 points and six rebounds, and Scottie James had eight points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
“This team is too talented to beat itself on the offensive end,” McKay said. “Typically, it’s going to take a defense that has a plan for Scottie and other guys that can make field goals. I wasn’t worried, but I did think South Carolina State did a good job in their game against Memphis, and I thought they did a really good job against us.”
The Flames played for the third time in five days and trailed for only 2 minutes, 6 seconds in those contests. Pacheco-Ortiz gave the team a D-plus for its effort Sunday in a 66-55 victory over another Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference program, Maryland-Eastern Shore, and added the effort and intensity Tuesday were great to build momentum heading into Saturday’s road tilt at East Carolina.
“We were consistent the whole game” against South Carolina State, he said. “ … I think we’re excited for [East Carolina]. That’s one of our biggest challenges for our schedule this year. We’re excited and we’re going to be prepared for them.”
Jahmari Etienne led the Bulldogs with 14 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Damani Applewhite added eight points and nine rebounds.
Damien Sordelett covers Liberty and local golf for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5550.