WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Liberty had not won a nonconference road game against a Division I opponent in almost five years. It had not defeated an ACC opponent in nearly a decade. On Tuesday night, it hardly showed.
Lovell Cabbil scored 22 points, Ryan Kemrite had 17 on 4-of-5 shooting from 3-point range, and Liberty upset Wake Forest 79-66 at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum.
It was the Flames’ first nonconference road win over a Division I opponent since beating Western Carolina on Dec. 31, 2012, and their first victory over an ACC opponent since an 86-82 defeat of Virginia in 2008.
“I appreciated the effort our guys played with,” Flames coach Ritchie McKay said. “Going in, I knew (Wake Forest) Coach (Danny) Manning and his staff, how good he is and how they reflect the tradition and the storied history that Wake basketball has. They certainly weren’t opposition that we were excited about.
“But I felt like our guys played with a ton of poise.”
Indeed, it was the Flames (2-0) who were in control throughout. They trailed for only 5:34 and led for the entire second half. While the Demon Deacons briefly rallied within as few as three points in the opening stages of the second half, Liberty needed little time to answer with a 10-0 run, bookended by a pair of Cabbil baskets, to reclaim a 56-43 advantage.
Wake Forest (0-2) never truly recovered. Kemrite hit his fourth 3-pointer to make it 59-47 with 6:33 to play, then turned and punched the air in celebration as the Deacons’ fans looked on quietly.
“Whenever Wake made a run — and we knew they were going to make a bunch of them — I just think we were able to stem the tide a little bit, with those guys’ steadiness,” McKay said of his team’s four returning starters. “We took care of the ball, and as a result, we were fortunate to come out with a victory.”
While Liberty relied on its experience, Wake Forest continued to deal with growing pains after losing its season-opener 85-83 to Georgia Southern.
The Deacons, who returned only two starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, struggled to find contributions from their reserves. The Wake bench was outscored 22-5. The five substitutes who saw action were a combined 1-of-13 from the field and committed five turnovers.
Liberty shot 49 percent from the field and made nine 3-pointers, while the hosts were a paltry 2-of-17 (11.8 percent) from beyond the arc. The Flames owned the glass as well, outrebounding their ACC opposition 39-28.
“We’re not a good team right now,” Manning said. “We’ve got to get better. We’ve got to come into practice every day with our hard hat on, our lunchpail, and quit feeling sorry for ourselves and get better. That’s the only way that you can get out of the situation that we’re in now.”
For the Demon Deacons, Bryant Crawford scored 21 points. Doral Moore and Keyshawn Woods added 14 points each.
Wake Forest: The season is still in its infancy, but the Deacons have considerable work to do if they have any hope of repeating last year’s run to the NCAA Tournament. This is the first time Wake Forest has started a season 0-2 since 1979-80.
Liberty: The Big South Conference’s preseason coaches poll pegged the Flames to finish third in the league, behind UNC Asheville and Winthrop. Tuesday’s performance on the road against an ACC opponent will only bolster Liberty’s hopes of competing for the league championship.
McKay noted that his Liberty team was 347th of 347 Division I teams last season in offensive rebounds per game, at 4.94. So it was especially noteworthy that the Flames had as many offensive boards as Wake Forest (9) and fought the Deacons to a near stalemate in second-chance points, where Wake finished with a 14-13 edge.
“There’s been a little bit more attention to it,” McKay said, before pointing to the “terrific” effort of reserve forward Scottie James, who finished with 14 total rebounds, including four offensive boards, in 22 minutes. Manning echoed that sentiment, saying James was “the best player on the floor” and had “imposed his will” on the Deacons.
NO CHICKEN DINNER
With the outcome all but certain as the game entered its final minutes, the last bit of suspense came as the scoreboards at Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum reminded fans that if a visiting player missed two consecutive free throws, all fans would receive a gift card for a free chicken sandwich from Chick-fil-A.
As such, the fans who remained were boisterous when Liberty’s Keegan McDowell went to the line with 15 seconds remaining. He missed his first shot, only adding to the intensity. But McDowell disappointed those in attendance, making his second shot.
A reserve at the end of Liberty’s bench took particular pride in adding salt to the Wake Forest fans’ wounds. “Y’all are going home hungry tonight,” he yelled to no one in particular.
Both Wake Forest and Liberty will travel to Lynchburg, Virginia for the Paradise Jam. The tournament, which was originally scheduled to be played at St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, was moved to Liberty’s Vines Center as a result of the damage from Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria.
The Demon Deacons’ first matchup of the Paradise Jam comes against Drake on Friday, just a few hours after Liberty opens tournament play against Mercer. Both teams will play three games in three days.