Cleveland burns brightly to held lead the Liberty Flames past Vermont 71-61 for the MBI championship

CONWAY, S.C. (Nov. 19, 2023) – Liberty forward Zach Cleveland went from zero points to 21 in one game. That sudden acceleration helped the Flames zoom past Vermont 71-61 to win the 2023 Myrtle Beach Invitational championship.

Cleveland was scoreless in Liberty’s semifinal victory over Wichita State. But no points in one game proved to be no problem in the next, as Cleveland had a remarkably consistent scoring night against Vermont: 4-of-5 shooting for 10 points in the first half, 5-of-7 for 11 points in the second (to go along with 9 rebounds overall). In the process, the Flames battled back from a 10-point first-half deficit to win by 10.

“That is what’s special about our group. It can be a different guy every night,” said Cleveland, whose previous career scoring high was 13 points. “I had zero the last game, but I was still happy about the win. Tonight the matchups were favored in my way, so I took advantage of it.”

He wasn’t the only one. Kaden Metheny had 13 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds, Brody Peebles contributed 13 points and 3 boards, and Colin Porter added 10 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists.

“Our guys are fun to coach, because they are really unbelievable in their selflessness and the way they play together,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “We have some versatility both offensively and defensively. You combine that with the selflessness that they play with, and we’re usually a tough out.”

And all that doesn’t even include forward Kyle Rode, who won the MBI John T. Rhodes Most Valuable Player Award. Rode built up his MVP resume in the first two games of the tournament, when he averaged 25 points and 5 rebounds per game. His stat line wasn’t quite as impressive in the championship game (8 points, 8 boards), but McKay said that is not where Rode’s true value lies.

“I haven’t had a team captain in 15 years. We don’t name captains. But the players named him ‘Cap’ and with good reason,” McKay said. “He does so many things. Just his voice in the huddle. He’s a rare one. He could be MVP in any game he plays in. He’s a winner.”

Vermont led 16-6 midway through the first half, but the Flames slowly battled back and held a 35-33 advantage at halftime. Neither team led by more than five for most of the second half before Liberty pulled away with a 10-1 run over the final four minutes.

“It was back-and-forth until we didn’t score a basket there at the end,” Vermont coach John Becker said. “We needed better execution offensively down the stretch. But our guys battled. That’s just a good Liberty team. They’re great defensively and have timely scoring.”

Peebles joined Rode on the All-Tournament Team by averaging 13.3 points per game on 58.6 percent shooting. Also making the team were Vermont guard Shamir Bogues (13.7 ppg, 6.3 rebounds per game and 8 steals), Wyoming guard Sam Griffin (21.7 ppg) and Furman guard Marcus Foster, who set the MBI three-game scoring record with a total of 78 points (26 per game).