CONWAY — The last time Liberty visited The HTC Center, it didn’t go so well for the Coastal Carolina men’s basketball team.
The Flames came into the Big South tournament last March with an ugly, losing record and stunned the host Chanticleers in a lopsided first-round upset on their way to claiming the conference championship.
When they return Wednesday night, the stakes won’t be quite as pronounced, but in a wide-open, muddled and cluttered Big South race, this latest installment in the rivalry retains plenty of significance nonetheless.
“It’s something that’s in the back of our heads because we’ve been through it, we suffered that loss and were devastated, but it’s a new year and we have a chance to do something special this year,” Coastal junior guard Warren Gillis said of the teams’ last meeting. “... No matter who we’re playing, we’re just trying to win a game.”
A feat the Chants (11-9, 4-2 Big South) have performed with impressive regularity of late, having won four of their last five contests to thrust themselves into a three-way tie atop the conference’s South Division standings.
Liberty (9-12, 3-3), meanwhile, comes to town on the heels of a 65-53 win over Presbyterian after losing its previous two games. The Flames haven’t quite carried over their late-season momentum from last year – a storybook run that ended in the first round of the NCAA tournament with a narrow 73-72 loss to North Carolina A&T – but they nonetheless seem to match up well against the Chants with three-straight wins in the series.
“We know they’re good, absolutely,” Chants coach Cliff Ellis said. “They’ve got everybody back from the team that beat us twice [last year]. ... They’ve got all those pieces back, and we lost a couple of key pieces from our team so we know that we’ve got to come out and play a great game.”
Those pieces include the veteran backcourt of senior point guard John Caleb Sanders (11.8 points, 4.6 assists per game) and senior shooting guard Davon Marshall (10.8 points, 2.4 3-pointers per game), who was the star of the Big South tournament last year. Marshall hit five 3-pointers in that 78-61 first-round upset last March, and he, Sanders and proficient shooting junior forward Tomasz Gielo pose a stern test to Coastal’s at-times-leaky perimeter defense.
“They’ve got three guys that can knock down 3s, and they’ve got guys off the bench. No question that the 3-point shot is big,” Ellis said. “We’ve just got to be close. We’ve got to be close to them. We can’t give them free looks.”
Despite their up-and-down results, the Flames are also right in the thick of contention, locked in a four-way tie for second place in the conference’s North Division.
If there has been any theme to the Big South season thus far, it’s that there is no dominant team – just a lot of solid to very good squads with realistic championship hopes.
Both of these teams find themselves in that mix, and so yet again, Flames-Chants merits the buildup that usually accompanies one of the league’s better rivalries.
“You can’t think of whether you’re home or on the road. You’ve just got to go out and play each game and it’s important,” Ellis said. “... It is early. We will be at the halfway point [of league play] this week, and then every game starts to build up. With exception of one team, there isn’t anybody that doesn’t have a shot at this thing. That’s pretty balanced.”
• Notes | Regardless of the weather Wednesday night, the plan is for the teams to play the game as long as Liberty arrives into town. The Flames were scheduled to leave Lynchburg, Va., on Tuesday afternoon.
Contact RYAN YOUNG at 626-0318, or follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/RyanYoungTSN.