Furman, Liberty start trying out their Big Dance steps in MBI first-round matchup

Furman and Liberty have made some noise in the NCAA Tournament in recent years by posting a pair of first-round upsets. Liberty (2-0) picked up the first NCAA Tournament win in program history in 2019 with an 80-76 victory over fifth-seeded Mississippi State. Furman (2-0) did likewise this past March, topping fourth-seeded Virginia 68-67 in the Paladins’ first tourney appearance in 43 years.

Now the teams are looking to use success in the Myrtle Beach Invitational to take steps toward this season’s Big Dance, beginning with their opening-round game against each other at 7 p.m. ET on Thursday.

Both head coaches pointed toward defense as being the key to their undefeated starts this season. Liberty coach Ritchie McKay was particularly pleased with the Flames’ performance in a stifling 71-59 victory over Charlotte of the American Athletic Conference.

“That was a really good win for us,” McKay said. “I really like our team. They’re a connected group. They really don’t care about the individual accolades. I think that was reflected in the way they played. Defensively, there’s an unselfishness that you have to adhere to, and our guys showed a bit of that.”

Furman hasn’t been quite as strong defensively, allowing an average of 72 points per game in their two victories, but the Paladins have shown flashes of defensive domination. In the first half against Belmont, for example, Furman harassed the Bruins into an 0-for-10 shooting performance from 3-points range (3-for-21 for the game).

“To come out and start the game with defensive energy and get all our depth engaged was really critical,” Furman coach Bob Richey said. “We guarded well – guarded elite, at times – but we weren’t able to sustain it. We guarded for long stretches, but we have to keep building to where we can really play a complete game with the type of pressure we’re trying to play with.”

Offensively, Liberty is led by junior guard Brody Peeples, who has come off the bench to average 16.5 points per game. Senior forward Kyle Rode is close behind at 16 ppg, and has shot 8-for-13 from 3-point range.

Furman counters with junior guard JP Pegues, who missed the Paladins’ season-opener but didn’t miss a beat against Belmont, finishing with 23 points, nine rebounds and nine assists.