Game #8-661: Liberty Flames vs. Charleston Southern BuccaneersFebruary 29, 2012 8:00 pm
With three straight blowout victories in the Big South Quarterfinals I was hoping that I would at least get to see one game that stayed relatively close until the final minutes. The last game of the night was the 4 vs 5 matchup between Charleston Southern and Liberty.
Once Kimmel Arena cleared out after UNCA won, Ian McCormick
was able to spot me. He was in the High Point cheering section rooting on his alma mater to no avail. We talked about how the 3 teams we wanted to see win were all dispatched pretty easily and since we both wanted to see CSU get the win that hopefully the Bucs would be able to pull it out.
It is hard to get a good gauge on what CSU will do. They have an explosive offense and have ripped through teams at points during the year. Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper have been catalysts whenever the offense is clicking, but both have hit the freshman wall. The inconsistency of the team is really magnified whenever they are away from home.
Liberty came into the Big South Tourney as the hottest team. Early in the year they were dreadful, having to deal with losses due to injuries and transfers. Since then they have turned their season around, winning five straight Big South games and 9 of 12 to get the five seed.
While Nimley had been struggling as of late, he didn't any signs of slump when the game started. He along with Mathiang Muo hit early jumpers while Kelvin Martin and Paul Gombwer were cleaning the glass and scoring in the paint. Sheldon Strickland and Jeremy Sexton came off the bench to join in on the scoring fun and it looked like another blowout was materializing when CSU went up 32-14.
Liberty took the punches and looked to be down and out, but they found their window to come back since CSU couldn't possibly keep shoot at the ridiculous rate they were scoring at. Jesse Sanders and Tavares Speaks hit consecutive 3's and a John Caleb Sanders took a pass from his brother and converted on a fast break to cut the lead to 9. That 9 point lead would be cut to 6 right before the half when David Minaya would hit a 3.
At the half Ian and I talked about what would happen if Charleston Southern would somehow have to host the Big South final. The tiny CSU Field House can barely accommodate the cameras for Big South Network games, so there would be little chance they could accommodate an ESPN broadcast. Ian mentioned the North Charleston Coliseum was out since they were hosting the circus. The possibilities for a neutral site were there, but I'm sure the Big South wouldn't want a half empty arena for their championship. TD Arena that hosts College of Charleston could be an option, but I'm sure it would have to be negotiated between the conferences and schools. All of it would be moot if the Buccaneers couldn't get past the Flames, who seemed to have momentum on their side.
Liberty took that momentum and trimmed the lead down to two after an Antwan Burrus make, but Nimley hit another 3 on the other end. I'm amazed that Nimley can get off his shot since even though he's listed at 5'8" he seems even shorter that, but he is able to launch over much taller players with success.
Liberty was sticking around with the Bucs and while defense wasn't the star of the show, it was good to see both teams light it up. I was brought to my feet after a gigantic putback dunk from Martin to put CSU up 56-48. The sparsely attended Kimmel Arena got pretty loud after that, mainly from the boisterous CSU band. I thought the Bucs would pull away, but Jesse Sanders was having another stat stuffing night - 14 points, 8 boards, 7 assists and 4 steals. His backcourt pressure had Liberty within two again at the under eight timeout.
With Nimley having a good game, his fellow freshman Harper wanted to get in on the act and some late 3s on his part had CSU back in control. Sexton added six straight points and a technical foul on Liberty's coach Dale Layer didn't help matters for the Flames. The Bucs were going on another one of their streaks to finish the game and another stick back slam from Martin had CSU up 15 with two and a half to go.
While the score may have looked like another blowout in the Big South, it was a much more competitive game than it seemed. Both teams fought hard and you could tell neither wanted their season to end.
It was a nice turnaround on the season for Liberty, but they came up short in the end. They lose Jesse Sanders for next year, but his brother John Caleb will look to step up in his place. Charleston Southern moves on to the semifinals where the host team UNCA will be waiting for them. Only one Big South team was able to knock off the Bulldogs in Asheville, but that team was CSU, so the chance at an upset is there. It should be a high scoring affair since both can light up the scoreboard.
It was a very long day and I was exhausted, I wanted to catch some of the Asheville night life, but couldn't bring myself to do. The Big South Quarterfinals were behind me, but I had to do it all again tomorrow when the semifinals were awaiting.