NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The celebration was in full swing the moment Caleb Homesley sank his final free throw to secure Liberty’s 74-68 victory over Lipscomb in the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament title game Sunday afternoon.
Homesley looked toward the bench that was ready to storm the court in celebration and screamed his approval as Lipscomb inbounded the ball and the final second ran off the clock.
Two players, senior Lovell Cabbil and junior Georgie Pacheco-Ortiz, embraced amid the jubilation near midcourt at Allen Arena. The guards reflected on the journey they and teammates took to get back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2013. There was the string of losses that dragged on during Cabbil’s first two seasons, the close calls that never seemed to go the Flames’ way, and the heartbreaking setbacks — like the loss to Radford in last season’s Big South Conference tournament title game — that crushed their postseason dreams.
But there, in the seconds before the Liberty bench engulfed the two in celebration, they soaked in moment. Cabbil, Pacheco-Ortiz and the Flames were going dancin’ again.
“We got what we wanted. We got what we worked for — him for four years, me for three years — and we just embraced,” Pacheco-Ortiz said. “We talked about how a lot of people just doubt us for different reasons. We finally made it and proved the doubters wrong.”
As they have displayed this entire season, the Flames (28-6) turned to their defense to close out the A-Sun tournament championship in their inaugural season in the conference.
Liberty held the top-seeded Bisons (25-7) to one field goal over the final 2 1/2 minutes and scored on its final four trips to secure the program’s fourth automatic bid into the Big Dance.
“It was just a surreal feeling. We worked so hard to get here,” Cabbil said. “ … When Caleb finally got the rebound and he got fouled with one second left, it just all hit me that all the work that we had done this year had paid off.”
Liberty, the tournament’s second seed, took the lead for good on Scottie James’ difficult layup underneath the basket with 56 seconds remaining. It was a designed play in which Cabbil got the pass through to James, who finished around the defense of Rob Marberry.
“That’s a tough pass. We drew the play up to do that,” said James, who scored 17 points on 7-of-10 shooting, pulled down eight rebounds and was named tournament MVP. “He felt he could thread the needle in there, and he did, put me in great position, and [I] put the ball in.”
Lipscomb came up empty on the next possession after getting its only offensive rebound of the second half, and Pacheco-Ortiz hit a dagger from the corner for 3 points with 14.8 seconds left to put the Flames ahead 70-66.
Pacheco-Ortiz finished with 16 points for the second time in three conference tournament games.
“It was big,” he said of the 3.
Marberry, who had 18 points on 9-of-14 shooting, delivered a bucket to answer with 9.4 seconds left, cutting the lead to 70-68, but couldn’t complete a three-point play to pull within one.
James made two free throws with 8.4 seconds left, and Homesley grabbed the rebound on Garrison Mathews’ last-ditch 3-point attempt to secure the Flames’ win and tournament berth.
“I loved the opportunity that we had in front of us,” Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. “We just didn’t get it done.”
Four of five Liberty starters scored in double figures to come up just shy of having all five hit the double-digit mark for a second time this season. Cabbil finished with 14 points and four rebounds and Homesley flirted with a triple-double with 11 points, eight assists and seven rebounds.
Mathews led all scorers with 21 points on 5-of-12 shooting, and Lipscomb’s Kenny Cooper scored eight of his 14 points during a four-possession stretch in the first half that gave the Bisons a 26-18 lead.
The Flames, however, rallied by scoring the final nine points of the opening 20 minutes to take a 29-28 lead into halftime.
“We really played at our pace and tried to slow the game a little bit when they made some runs,” Homesley said.
The lead changed hands 18 times in an emotionally charged second half.
The Flames extended the lead to four twice in the second half, but the Bisons had a response each time to keep the game close.
Marberry bullied his way into the paint and scored over James to take a 64-63 lead with 2:36 remaining, and Mathews sank a pair of free throws with 91 seconds left to put Lipscomb back ahead 66-65.
“I think was just one of those games that you needed a break or two down the stretch,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said, “and we were fortunate enough to get one.”