SAN JOSE, Calif. — Caleb Homesley said he “played confident” during a five-minute stretch when he took over and scored 14 points in an eight-possession stretch to will Liberty back into the lead against Mississippi State.
Others weren’t so nonchalant about the redshirt junior’s ability to become the most dynamic player on the SAP Center court.
Flames coach Ritchie McKay said it was special. Keenan Gumbs, a graduate student, called it ridiculous.
However you sum it up, Homesley made sure Liberty kept its dancin’ shoes on for at least one more round of the NCAA Tournament.
The 6-foot-6 Homesley scored a career-high 30 points, including the 14 points he tallied in a stretch that helped the Flames overcome a double-digit deficit, and Liberty claimed a thrilling 80-76 win over Mississippi State in an East Region tilt in the Round of 64.
“That was unreal,” Gumbs said of Homesley’s performance. “If you saw the look in his eyes, you would have known what he was about to do. He put us on his back.”
The 12th-seeded Flames (29-6) won an NCAA Tournament game for the first time and advance to Sunday’s second round against Virginia Tech.
“I don’t think that we’re done yet,” Homesley said. “I think our guys believe that whenever we step into a venue that we’re going to win the game.”
The prospect of continuing its season looked dim for Liberty when the fifth-seeded Bulldogs (23-11) took a 63-53 lead on Lamar Peters’ layup with 7:18 remaining.
McKay called his penultimate timeout, and Homesley answered the bell almost immediately.
He scored six points in a 30-second stretch as the Flames cut the deficit to seven, and then tallied eight points in a four-possession span, highlighted by a contested straightaway 3-pointer with 2:36 remaining that put Liberty ahead 69-67.
“I think we felt like we could come back if we started valuing each possession,” McKay said. “ … I just think it shows the character of our group.”
The run capped an eight-possession stretch in which Homesley scored 14 points and made all four of his shots.
He made 7 of his final 8 shots on his way to a 10-of-16 shooting performance. The Indian Trail, North Carolina, native scored 22 of Liberty’s 45 second-half points.
“I think that I just played confident,” Homesley said. “I think any shot that I take is going to go in. It just happened tonight that they were falling.”
The Bulldogs took the lead back on Robert Woodard’s free throws with 1:37 left, but the Flames immediately answered on Lovell Cabbil’s deep 3-pointer with 76 seconds left.
Liberty didn’t trail again after Cabbil’s triple.
“That was the biggest shot of the game,” Mississippi State junior guard Tyson Carter said. “ … After that, they kept the lead. That’s the biggest shot of the game.”
Cabbil shot 3 of 4 from 3-point range and finished with 18 points.
“When I took it, I realized how deep it was when I was about to take it, but once it left my hand, it felt good and left the follow through up,” Cabbil said. “I knew it was good when it left my hand.”
Myo Baxter-Bell came off the bench and finished with 13 points, four rebounds and four assists.
The Bulldogs cut the deficit to 74-72 on Quinndary Weatherspoon’s free throws with 22.2 seconds left, but the Flames closed the victory by going 6 for 6 from the free-throw line in the final 14.2 seconds.
Cabbil was 4 of 4 from the line, and Baxter-Bell’s free throws with 3.6 remaining capped the triumph.
The Flames closed the game scoring on 12 of their final 15 possessions and shot 12 of 25 from 3-point range for the game.
“They were down 10, and they did a good job to fight to come back,” Mississippi State coach Ben Howland said.
Weatherspoon had 27 points and nine rebounds, and Peters added 21 points and five assists.