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Liberty upsets Mississippi State behind 30 points from Caleb Homesley

Caleb Homesley and Lovell Cabbil Jr. of the Liberty Flames celebrate after their 80-76 win over the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the First Round of the NCAA tournament at SAP Center on March 22, 2019 in San Jose, California. (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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SAN JOSE — As he slogged through the first six weeks of his college career more than three years ago, Liberty guard Caleb Homesley was approached by first-year coach Ritchie McKay, who told the freshman that maybe he ought to think about dropping down and playing at the Division II level. There was nothing wrong with that, McKay said, adding that he had once played at that level himself. And, McKay warned, if he didn’t start working harder, he would end up at a different level.

“And he flipped the script,” McKay said with a chuckle late Friday night, tracing the origin story of Homesley after the guard scored 30 points to lead the 12th-seeded Flames to an 80-76 upset of No. 5 seed Mississippi State in an East Region first-round game. It was Liberty’s first NCAA tournament win, and it came after a rally from a double-digit deficit in the final seven minutes behind the wizardry of the lanky 6-foot-6 Homesley.

The redshirt junior scored 17 points in the final 11 minutes alone.

“I just played confident. I think any shot that I take is going to go in,” said Homesley, who hit on 10 of 16 from the field with five three-pointers. Guard Lovell Cabbil Jr. added 18 points for the Flames, who will meet No. 4 seed Virginia Tech on Sunday.

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Mississippi State’s Quinndary Weatherspoon and Lamar Peters combined for 48 points for the Bulldogs, who answered a Homesley layup with a 10-0 run midway through the second half to take a 63-53 lead. But Homesley, who has battled knee injuries and has been in out of the lineup throughout his career, wouldn’t let his team fall apart. He had seen this before against Power Five opponents throughout the season. Liberty trailed by just two at halftime on Friday night; it had been within one possession at halftime against Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Alabama and UCLA, yet won just one of those games.

“That schedule prepared us for this assignment,” said McKay, the former Virginia assistant who is in his second stint coaching Liberty, which is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance. After his team trailed by 10 with just over seven minutes left, he took a timeout and reassured his players that they could dig themselves out of the hole.

Homesley took the words to heart, scoring 14 of his team’s next 16 points, including a pair of three pointers and a vicious dunk that pulled the Flames within 67-66 with 3:28 remaining. After Weatherspoon had a three-pointer blocked on the ensuing possession, Homesley countered with another three-pointer that gave Liberty the lead with just over two minutes remaining. It didn’t hurt that Liberty smothered Mississippi State defensively down the stretch. The Bulldogs went more than five minutes without a field goal and missed nine of their final 10 shots.

“All of our guys believed that we were going to come back,” Homesley said.

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Mississippi State regained the lead on a pair of free throws with 1:36 left, but Cabbil answered with a three-pointer to give the Flames a 72-70 lead with 1:16 remaining. Mississippi State’s Robert Woodard missed a dunk on the next possession, and Liberty capitalized on its free throws down the stretch.

After the game was finally over, Homesley embraced his teammates and McKay, the coach who reminded him about his potential during the rough early days of his career.

“It means something, first NCAA tournament win,” Homesley said. “But I don’t think we’re done yet.”