CONWAY — Liberty’s men’s basketball team did the unthinkable on Sunday afternoon, beating Charleston Southern, 87-76, to capture the Big South Conference tournament championship and earn the league’s automatic berth to the NCAA tournament.
Liberty (15-20), the fifth-place finisher in the North Division during the regular season, became just the second team with 20 losses to reach the NCAA tournament, joining Coppin State in 2008.
Along the way, the Flames upset Coastal Carolina (No. 4 seed South), High Point (No. 1 North) and Gardner-Webb (No. 2 South) in the first three rounds of the tournament to advance to the finals. Charleston Southern was the South Division champion during the regular season.
Charleston Southern (19-12) will play in the NIT as the Big South representative.
Liberty was led by guards John Caleb Sanders and Davon Marshall, who combined for 47 points. Sanders finished with 27 points, hitting 11 of 12 free throws. Marshall connected on six 3-pointers.
The Flames shot 57.7 percent in the second-half and made 18 of 22 free throws in the second half, finishing 24 of 30 for the game.
Sophomore guard Saah Nimley scored 18 points to lead CSU, while senior guard Jeremy Sexton added 17 and moved into eighth place on the CSU career scoring list. Sophomore Arlon Harper scored 12 points before fouling out with 2:29 left. Senior Mathiang Muo scored 12 points.
CSU shot 41.7 percent from the floor, their best shooting effort of the tournament. The Bucs were 9 of 28 from 3-point range.
“What a terrific job by coach (Dale) Layer, to win four games in six days and to win a championship is a terrific accomplishment by he and his staff,” said CSU coach Barclay Radebaugh. “It just wasn’t our day. We had a tough time stopping them defensively. They made some tough shots and made some nice plays. We give them a lot of credit for how they played.
“Our guys fought. We didn’t play great but we fought, and our guys are champions. Nobody can take away what we did this season, and we’re going to be in a postseason tournament for the first time in a long time.”
Charleston Southern opened the game the way it did in the previous two tournament games — cold from the floor. The Bucs made only one of their first six shots.
Sheldon Strickland went on a personal 5-0 run, hitting a layup and a 3-pointer, to give CSU a 12-10 lead.
Marshall’s third 3-pointer of the half gave Liberty an 18-12 lead with 10:27 remaining, but Harper and Sexton hit long-range bombs to keep CSU close at 22-19 with 7:40 to play. CSU made only one field goal inside the 3-point arc in the first 12 minutes of the half.
Harper’s 13-footer gave CSU a 23-22 lead, and the game was tied several times over the final six minutes of the half. Strickland’s free throw gave CSU a 34-33 lead with 12 seconds to go, but Speaks hit a 16-foot jumper at the buzzer to give the Flames a 35-34 lead at the break.
Harper scored four quick points to open the second half but picked up his third foul with 17:28 left. CSU led 40-37, their largest lead of the game, with 18:07 left, but Liberty went on an 11-4 run to take a 48-44 lead with 14:34 to play.
Marshall’s fifth 3-pointer of the game put the Flames up, 54-47, with 11:59 remaining in the game.
The lead ballooned to 58-48 with 10:24 to play. Harper picked up his fourth foul with 7:06 remaining and CSU trailing, 60-54.
With CSU still having no success on the offensive glass and the shots not falling, Liberty took advantage. Marshall and Tomasz Gielo hit back-to-back 3s to give Liberty a 68-54 lead with 5:26 remaining.
Charleston Southern made one last gasp, cutting the lead to 70-61 with possession of the ball, but Nimley missed a 3-pointer with 2:50 to play and Liberty sealed the victory with free throws.
“Our season is not over. We still have a game to play,” said Radebaugh. “We’ll get back to work this week and we’ll go whereever they send us and give it a great effort. This team gives a great effort every time they walk on the floor.”