March Madness starts early this Sunday with a noon Big South Championship game featuring Liberty vs Charleston Southern. Here’s what you need to know:
The Liberty Flames started their season, aptly enough, by “flaming out” and losing their first eight and and ten of their first eleven. Since then, they’ve somewhat improved to a 14-20 record overall and 6-10 in the Big South. Their Big South Tournament run, however, has been red hot (be warned guys, I’m in a goofy mood this morning). The Flames entered the tournament as the fifth-ranked team (out of six) on their side of the bracket, but they’ve dug deep to make a tournament run and have one last attempt at redemption. They upset High Point in a one point win over the top seeded team on their side of the bracket to unexpectedly advance, and beat Gardner-Webb in another close game.
How have they done it? The Flames have relied on building big leads and then sitting back on strong defense to close out games. Against High Point , Liberty built a 17-point lead (they never trailed in the game) to cushion a High Point comeback while holding their opponents to 33.3% FG shooting, and similarly, they were up by as many as 11 points against Gardner-Webb before holding them scoreless in the last 3:21 of the semifinal game (not as impressive as seven-plus minutes, but hey…). The Flames also enjoy a balanced trio of scoring from John Caleb Sanders, Davon Marshall, and Tavares Speaks, who all average around 13 points per game. When one player has an off night, the others are easily able to pick up the slack.
Meanwhile, Charleston Southern entered the tournament as one of the favorites as a leader of their half of the division. At 19-11 and 12-4 in the Big South, the Buccaneers enjoyed a nice little eight game winning streak earlier this season and have coasted (beach school pun!) through the tournament so far with easy victories over Winthrop and VMI. The Bucs are anchored (guys I’m on a roll with the puns this morning) by Arlon Harper, a sophomore guard who went off for 33 points against VMI. Guard Saah Nimley earned all-conference honors recently, but against Winthrop he was held to just seven points on 1-13 shooting.
Arlon Harper getting his Nelly on.
So who’s gonna win? If you’re feeling lucky, sure, bet on the flaming Liberties. However, Charleston Southern’s a stronger and more stable team. In their regular season matchup, Charleston won 79-75 and led for much of the game before allowing the Flames to tie it at 74. The Flames may be hot (LAST PUN I SWEAR), but the Bucs are more capable of steering their boat into harbor (PSYCH HAD TO DO THAT). I’m going with Charleston Southern, 78- 61.