The scenarios for Sunday’s ASUN championship game are simple: winner goes to the NCAA tournament, loser goes to the NIT.
It’s the rubber match for No. 1 Lipscomb and No. 2 Liberty, and this time, the teams will battle on a national stage. The game will be televised by ESPN, and a sellout crowd is expected in Allen Arena.
“I would almost say it’ll be a similar feeling to when we went to March Madness last year, but it’ll be on our home floor,” Lipscomb senior Garrison Mathews said. “It’s going to be crazy to play in front of that many fans that are going for [us].”
Lipscomb (25-6) knocked off Kennesaw State and NJIT to reach its second-straight title game. The Bisons beat Florida Gulf Coast 108-96 to advance to the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.
Meanwhile, Liberty (27-6) beat Jacksonville and North Florida to earn a trip to Nashville and a chance for a title in its first season as a member of the ASUN.
On Jan. 29, Lipscomb crushed Liberty on its home-court, 77-55. The Flames then returned the favor by handing the Bisons a 74-66 loss two weeks later. The two teams play different styles, but something must give this time.
“The styles were what was so different,” Lipscomb coach Casey Alexander said. “The first game better reflected how we like to play, the second one better reflected how they like to play. It’s not always that simple, but that will go a long way toward who wins this game.”
BREAKING DOWN THE FLAMES:
Liberty had a clear path to the No. 1 seed in the ASUN until a 75-50 slipup at North Florida on Feb. 23. But the team got its revenge with 71-63 victory over the Ospreys to advance to the ASUN final.
The Flames are led by forward Scottie James (13 PPG, 8.8 RPG) and Caleb Homesley (12.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG). Both earned ASUN First-Team All-Conference honors.
Senior guard Lovell Cabbil (11.5) left Thursday’s game against North Florida with a knee injury. He later returned to the bench and was able to walk through the handshake line, but it’s unclear whether he will play against Lipscomb Sunday.
“We’re 100 percent preparing as if he’s going to play,” Alexander said. “They’ve got a lot of pieces, but he’s their senior leader, their best defender. So, it’ll require them to really make up for his loss if he doesn’t play.”
Liberty plays a slow pace on offense, which gave Lipscomb fits the last time the two teams met. James, along with forward Myo Baxter-Bell provide a beefy presence inside that will challenge Lipscomb’s Rob Marberry and Eli Pepper.
“They give everybody problems,” Alexander said. “They defended us a little differently in the second game – they made it more of a one-on-one contest inside. That’ll be an important matchup.”
BREAKING DOWN THE BISONS:
Lipscomb enters Sunday’s contest on a four-game win streak. More importantly, the Bisons are looking to defend their ASUN crown and return to the Big Dance for the second time in program history.
Mathews, the ASUN Player of the Year, is Lipscomb’s centerpiece. He averages 20 points and five rebounds per game. Since losing to FGCU on Feb. 20, Mathews has refound his touch by making 44 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
Rob Marberry (14.5 PPG), Eli Pepper (7.9 PPG) and Kenny Cooper (10.1 PPG) help make up Lipscomb’s experience-heavy roster. All three were key players on last year’s championship team, and they’ve followed that up with strong performances this year.
After being forced out of their rhythm against Liberty last month, Lipscomb should look to set the pace early on Sunday. Doing so is crucial to making their high-octane offense effective.
“After the [Feb. 13] game, we all looked at each other and were like ‘this is not the way that we play,'” Marberry said. “We’ve got a third opportunity to show it this time, and I think we will.”
Lipscomb is currently No. 44 in the NET rankings, but a loss on Sunday would drop them too far down the list to be in consideration for an at-large bid, which was briefly a consideration before the loss to FGCU.
“This is a game and a situation where you’ve got to go win,” Alexander said. “You can’t expect somebody to play poorly, you can’t expect the crowd to carry you, you can’t expect anything of that nature. You show up on Sunday afternoon at 2 o’clock, and you bring it like you’ve never brought it.”
ANALYSIS AND PREDICTION:
Lipscomb’s dismal performance against the Flames on Feb. 13 seems like an outlier. The Bisons shot just 37 percent from the field and 17 percent from long range.
Don’t expect a repeat of that. The Bisons have an experienced lineup, and they seem to have regained their mojo since losing to Liberty and FGCU last month. If Cabbil does not play or is limited, the Flames will have one less important weapon.
This game will be close for a while, but Lipscomb will start and finish strong in a 10-point victory to earn a return trip to the Big Dance.
Prediction: Lipscomb 75, Liberty 65
Photo by McKenzi Harris