One team looking to improve on defense meets another seeking an offensive boost when Liberty and Mississippi State lock horns in the third-place game of the Space Coast Challenge on Thursday night in Melbourne, Fla.
The Flames (0-1) had no answer for Purdue’s 7-foot-4 Zach Edey in a 77-64 loss to the Boilermakers in the opener of the four-team, two-day tournament on Wednesday.
In the first-round nightcap, the Bulldogs (0-1) shot just 30 percent overall and connected on just four of 13 3-point attempts in a 53-42 loss to Clemson.
The Thursday game is a rematch of Liberty’s 80-76 upset of Mississippi State in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. The win was Liberty’s first-ever in NCAA Tournament play.
Guard Caleb Homesley, hero of that contest with 30 points, has since graduated, but the Flames do still have two regulars from that 29-win team, including junior guard Darius McGhee, who paced Liberty with 21 points in the loss to Purdue.
The Flames surprised the Bulldogs with 12-for-25 accuracy on 3-pointers two seasons ago, and it will be no shock if they come out firing from beyond the arc in the rematch. Liberty fired up 32 3-point attempts against Purdue, making 11.
Coming off a school-record, 30-win season, Liberty coach Ritchie McKay at least accomplished one of his goals in the loss to the Boilermakers: He got 10 players into the game on opening night.
“We have five of our top 11 who have never played a game for Liberty,” he said. “When you have 10 or 11 guys, this is as deep as we’ve been. My biggest problem is going to be managing those minutes.”
Mississippi State got 12 points Wednesday from sophomore guard D.J. Stewart Jr. and a 12-point, 10-rebound double-double from Western Kentucky transfer Tolu Smith.
Depth was an issue for the Bulldogs, however, as their other seven players who got playing time combined for just 18 points on 7-for-24 shooting.
The 42-point team total was 10 fewer than Mississippi State totaled in any game last season en route to a 20-11 campaign.
Smith was just happy to get on the court in a Bulldogs uniform after having sat out last year.
“It is a great feeling,” the 6-foot-10 forward said on season’s eve. “It’s been a long journey. Coach has a lot of expectations for me.”
–Field Level Media