By MIKE SMITH
OXFORD, Oh – After being hamstrung by a short bench last season, Miami RedHawks head basketball coach John Cooper has been hopeful that his 2014-15 squad will provide some winning depth down the stretch of some close basketball games this year.
While the RedHawks aren’t totally healthy yet, they nonetheless provided a peek of some depth Saturday in a 63-52 win over Liberty at Millett Hall. Miami’s bench outscored the opposition 15-6 on the night. That kind of statistic would have been virtually impossible last year when various issues left MU with few options off the bench.
“We have the potential to get production off the bench,” Miami head coach John Cooper said after Saturday’s victory. “We’ve got some people there, and we’re just figuring it out as we go.”
Junior guard Geovonie McKnight paced MU with 19 points on 7 of 14 from the field (1 of 2 on treys) and 4 of 6 at the line.
“He played well on both ends of the court,” said Cooper, who noted McKnight was tasked with guarding Liberty forward Thomasz Gielo. “I think (that kind of assignment) gets him locked into the game, and he’s ready to go at the other end.”
Senior Will Sullivan netted 12 points with 3 of 6 from the floor (2 of 3 on treys) and 4 of 4 at the free throw line.
Andrew Smith, a 6-9 senior forward, was 6 of 9 from the field and 1 of 3 at the line for 13 points to lead Liberty. He was the Flame’s only double figure scorer and also contributed seven rebounds. Three other Liberty players, however, chipped in nine points apiece.
As it had in a midweek home loss to Evansville, Miami trailed at the half, with the deficit this time being three points at 27-24. Khalif Wri
Liberty remained in front through most of the first half of the final stanza, but the Flames never could quite shake MU. Their last lead was at 41-40 with 10:34 remaining. F
Two Eric Washington free throws moved Miami in front at 8:25 and started an 8-1 RedHawks run for a 48-42 advantage. McKnight contributed six points and a steal during a stretch when MU inched its way to a 57-49 advantage at 1:01.
Miami’s free throw shooting has been inconsistent, but RedHawk players made nine straight at one point during the final two minutes to put the game away even as Liberty misfired on a number of trey attempts while trying to close the gap. Liberty had hit 21 three-pointers while going 2-1 in its first three games. The Flames, however, finished 3 of 16 (18.8%) from beyond the arc against Miami.
After a 47.8 percent field goal percentage in the first 20 minutes, Liberty dropped off to 28.6 percent (6 of 21) after the break. It was 38.6 percent from the field overall. The visitors made 11 of 15 (73.3%) at the line
Miami hit 10 of 28 (35.7%) from the field in the first half, including 1 of 6 on treys). It jumped to 45.5 percent after intermission as the RedHawks hit 10 of 22. It finished at an even 40 percent (20 of 50)
Miami, which shot just nine free throws against Evansville earlier in the week, made it to the free throw line 25 times against Liberty and connected 15 (60%) thanks to the a relatively good performance in the final two minutes.
Although facing a bigger lineup, Miami worked the boards hard and was rewarded with a 37-29 advantage that included a 12-5 edge of offensive rebounds. Consequently, the RedHawks benefitted from a 15-3 advantage in second chance points.
Miami worked its way back into a tie at 24-24 with a Kalif Wright jumper at 1:11, but a layup by James Johnson and Smith free throw restored Liberty’s advantage at 27-24 heading into the break.
“We score 10 points in the first four minutes of the game and then we proceed to have 14 points over basically the last 15 minutes,” Cooper said. “I think their defense was getting us to take the shots they wanted us to take. … There’s a reason why sometimes you are open.”
“Then, of course, I thought Smith and Johnson did a terrific job for them in the paint. They were getting deep touches and they were finishing.”
He continued, “We needed to push them off the post further and try to get around. And then we needed to get up and down the court more – create more energy in the game and handle the rebounding.”
With McKnight leading the way and a bench to back him up, Miami was able to do that, registering it’s second win of three to open the campaign.