The Highlanders captured their third Big South Tournament title and a secured a place in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. And what better place to earn the opportunity to dance than on their own home floor, in front of their own fans.
Defense took center stage in a game featuring the top two scoring defenses in the Big South this season. The contrasting styles — Liberty’s pack-line and Radford’s full-court pressure — forced each team into low shooting percentages in the first half.
For much of the first half, the Flames closed off the dribble drive lanes that are essential for the Highlander offense. Carlik Jones (13 points) began to find a few creases that led to four dimes, as well as getting the ball in the hands of the offensive boost, Devonnte Holland. The freshman Holland came off the bench to go five-for-six from the floor with 11 points and four rebounds in the half.
On the other end, what more can be said about Lovell Cabbil? Whenever a big play or shot was needed he came through. Radford’s pressure had begun to swing the momentum, as it forced seven first-half turnovers by using active hands and switching from zone to man presses. The Highlanders had extended to their largest lead of the half (six) with 2:36 left, when Cabbil calmy stepped into a contested three that touched nothing but the net.
The final two minutes of the half would belong to the defenses and a 26-21 Radford lead at the half.
Who needs two-point buckets when the threes are available? The grind on the defensive end was still in full effect in the second half, however, each team found their range, and the long distance shot was the main offense for each team over the first 12 minutes of the second half. During that stretch each team shot nearly 60 percent from beyond the arc, with big shots coming from Liberty’s Ryan Kemrite and Radford’s Travis Fields, Jr.
Down the stretch, neither team could find the right angle to deliver the knock out blow. Each defense got more stingy as the time got closer to zeros on the clock. Scottie James came alive offensively for the Flames, with 20 points and 13 rebounds. His second half performance was a brilliant exhibition of post play with toughness, physicality, and exceptional moves.
Ed Polite Jr. kept it close for Radford late in the game. After being plagued with foul trouble in the first half, Polite Jr. slashed and got to the free throw line on multiple occasions. He finished with 11 points, seven of which came from the foul line.
This one came down to the last possession and a call to Big South Freshman of the Year, Carlik Jones. With the game tied 52-52 and 13 seconds on the clock, Jones seized the moment. Just take a look.
Asked what was going through his mind after the shoot was released, Carlik was confident.
“I shot it, you know how you shoot it and you like alright, and I look at it after a while and I was like that's good and it fell,” he said.
The Radford Highlanders were picked to finish seventh in the Big South, so Polite Jr. believes nobody saw this coming.
“Everybody is shocked, cause nobody believed in us but Radford and we played with that chip on our shoulder throughout the year,” he said.
This will be the Highlanders first trip to the Big Dance since 2009.
“It was a monumental task, it really is, every college basketball job is hard,” said Highlanders’ coach Mike Jones.
As his team finishes first in the Big South, this is also a first for Jones, as this championship marks the first time the seventh-year Highlanders’ coach had appeared in the Big South title game.
Let those young fellas dance!