RADFORD, Va. (Radford Athletics) – The Highlanders were told it could not be done. When they were picked to finish seventh in the Big South preseason poll, when they sat in first place two months into the season and when they earned the second seed in the Big South Championship, they were still told it could not be done. Today, Radford is the Big South champion and will be dancing in the NCAA Tournament.
With 13 seconds left in regulation and the game knotted at 52, redshirt freshman guard Carlik Jones received the inbound pass. He dribbled to his left across the top of the key and pulled up to drill a game-winning 3-pointer as the clock hit zero, punching Radford’s ticket to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in nine years with a 55-52 victory over fifth-seeded Liberty.
It was a heavyweight battle between two of the top defensive teams in the nation. The Highlanders shot only 36.2-percent (17-for-47) while the Flames knocked down 43.9-percent (18-for-41) of their shots, but they’ve beat the odds before.
Radford weathered an eight-minute stretch from the 9:45 mark to the 1:38 mark in the second half in which it did not hit a field goal, but Liberty was held without a field goal for the final 2:47 of the contest when it mattered the most.
Four perfect trips to the free throw line by Jones, senior center Randy Phillips, and junior forward Ed Polite Jr., kept the Highlanders close in the games’ final minutes, paving the way for Jones’ historic shot. The Cincinnati, Ohio native finished with 13 points on 5-of-12 shooting, five rebounds and matched his career high with six assists.
Sophomore guard Travis Fields Jr., a Portsmouth native, was crucial in the victory as well, going a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc to provide 12 points in a game where points were hard to come by. Sophomore center Devonnte Holland scored all 11 of his points in the first half, going 5-for-6 in the paint.
Polite Jr., struggled from the floor, making only two of his nine attempts, but he finished with 11 points thanks to seven free throws.
Redshirt sophomore forward Scottie James and junior guard Lovell Cabbil were an unbelievable one-two punch for Liberty. James posted a monster double-double of 20 points and 13 rebounds. He went 8-for-10 from the floor and added three blocks. Cabbil poured in 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting to go along with his seven assists.
As was the theme with Radford’s entire tournament run, free throws proved to be a vital key to success. The Highlanders went 16-for-20 from the charity stripe, earning twice as many trips to the line as the Flames went 10-for-10. Depth was also a massive advantage for the Highlanders as their bench scored 25 points compared to 11 for the Flames.
Radford earned the right to host the championship game after top seeded UNC Asheville was upset in semifinal action on Friday night, marking the first time the Highlanders had hosted the title game since its last tournament championship in 2009. That game happened to be the last time two Virginia intuitions played for the championship as Radford came out victorious 108-94 over VMI
The victory gives Radford 22 wins on the year, tying for the most in program history.