For a few fleeting moments on Friday night, Mississippi State appeared to have secured a spot in the NCAA tournament’s second round.
Then Liberty’s Caleb Homesley morphed into a human flame emoji and practically burnt through the Bulldogs’ lead by himself.
Fourteen of Homesley’s game-high 30 points came after Mississippi State built a 10-point lead with seven minutes to go. The junior guard’s torrid shooting helped 12th-seeded Liberty emerge with an 80-76 upset victory, the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament win.
What’s most remarkable about Homesley’s late-game barrage is that he’s typically an erratic outside shooter at best. He entered Friday having hit only 30.9 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but he knocked down three behind the arc during Liberty’s comeback and hit a trio of free throws after being fouled on another.
Homesley finished 10 of 16 from the field and 5 of 11 from behind the arc, an amazing performance from a kid who averages a modest 12 points per game and had only eclipsed 20 points twice before this. Lovell Cabbil Jr. also had a big night, chipping in 18 points including the 3-pointer that put Liberty ahead for good with 1:21 remaining.
Liberty becomes the third No. 12 seed to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second round, joining Oregon and Murray State. This is the fifth time that has happened in NCAA tournament history, the most recent coming in 2014.
That Liberty is in the second round of the NCAA tournament is a testament to the job Ritchie McCay has done since inheriting an 8-24 team only four years ago. With the help of stars Cabbil, Homesley and Scottie James, McCay has gradually rebuilt the Flames into a methodical, disciplined program that can compete with some of the top programs in the nation.
Liberty (28-6) hinted that a special season was possible during non-conference play when it won at UCLA in December. The Flames then captured a share of the Atlantic Sun title and won two of three against fellow NCAA tournament hopeful Lipscomb, including the rubber match in the conference tournament title game.
While Liberty would have been a tough out for any No. 5 seed, it helped that the Flames drew an opponent that had no more NCAA tournament credentials or experience than they did. Mississippi State hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2009, but Ben Howland has restored the Bulldogs to national relevance in year four of his rebuilding process.
Mississippi State’s inexperience showed down the stretch as the Bulldogs seemed to lose focus and ease off the gas pedal after opening up their 10-point lead. Their four- and five-star recruits no longer fought over the top of screens or sprinted out at shooters, and in the end, it cost them.
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