Caleb Homesley's late heroics rally Liberty to latest 12-5 upset

For a few fleeting moments on Friday night, Mississippi State appeared to have secured a spot in the NCAA tournament’s second round.

Then Liberty’s Caleb Homesley morphed into a human flame emoji and practically burnt through the Bulldogs’ lead by himself.

Fourteen of Homesley’s game-high 30 points came after Mississippi State built a 10-point lead with seven minutes to go. The junior guard’s torrid shooting helped 12th-seeded Liberty emerge with an 80-76 upset victory, the program’s first-ever NCAA tournament win.

What’s most remarkable about Homesley’s late-game barrage is that he’s typically an erratic outside shooter at best. He entered Friday having hit only 30.9 percent of his 3-pointers this season, but he knocked down three behind the arc during Liberty’s comeback and hit a trio of free throws after being fouled on another.

Homesley finished 10 of 16 from the field and 5 of 11 from behind the arc, an amazing performance from a kid who averages a modest 12 points per game and had only eclipsed 20 points twice before this. Lovell Cabbil Jr also had a big night, chipping in 18 points including the 3-pointer that put Liberty ahead for good with 1:21 remaining.

Liberty becomes the third No. 12 seed to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second round, joining Oregon and Murray State. This is the fifth time that has happened, the most recent coming in 2014.

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March Madness 2019: Photos from the first round
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March Madness 2019: Photos from the first round
Maryland 's Bruno Fernando (23) celebrates during the final moments of the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Belmont in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla., Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman (23) grabs a rebound over Bradley guard Ja'Shon Henry (22) during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Louisville forward Jordan Nwora is fouled by Minnesota guard Amir Coffey, right, during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Auburn's forward Horace Spencer (0) and New Mexico State guard JoJo Zamora (4) battle for a rebound in the first half during a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
Yale 's Paul Atkinson (20) and LSU's Kavell Bigby-Williams battle for a rebound during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
Belmont 's Dylan Windler, center, goes to the basket between Maryland 's Bruno Fernando, left, and Darryl Morsell (11) during the second half of the first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament in Jacksonville, Fla. Thursday, March 21, 2019. (AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Trevelin Queen #20 of the New Mexico State Aggies reacts after being defeated by the Auburn Tigers 78-77 in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Terrell Brown #3 of the New Mexico State Aggies attempts to shoot the ball against Anfernee McLemore #24 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Elijah Childs #10 of the Bradley Braves celebrates after a three point basket against the Michigan State Spartans during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Clayton Henry #5 of the New Mexico State Aggies dives for the ball during the first half against the Auburn Tigers in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
HARTFORD, CONNECTICUT - MARCH 21: Tevin Brown #10 of the Murray State Racers celebrates after hitting a three pointer during the second half of the first round game of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament against the Marquette Golden Eagles at XL Center on March 21, 2019 in Hartford, Connecticut. (Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images)
Purdue's Matt Haarms celebrates a basket as Old Dominion's Justice Kithcart (2) follows during the second half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. Purdue won 61-48. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
Villanova's Jermaine Samuels (23) dunks against St. Mary's Malik Fitts (24) during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
SALT LAKE CITY, UTAH - MARCH 21: Johnny MCCants #35 of the New Mexico State Aggies dunks the ball against Chuma Okeke #5 of the Auburn Tigers during the second half in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Vivint Smart Home Arena on March 21, 2019 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Tom Pennington/Getty Images)
DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Head coach Tom Izzo of the Michigan State Spartans glares at Aaron Henry #11 after a play during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament against the Bradley Braves at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - MARCH 21: Adam Kunkel #5 of the Belmont Bruins reacts on the bench in the second half of play against the Maryland Terrapins during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at VyStar Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena on March 21, 2019 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mississippi State guard Lamar Peters watches during the second half of the team's game against Liberty in the first round of the NCAA men's college basketball tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Liberty's Zach Farquhar, left, and Keegan McDowell celebrate during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Mississippi State in the NCAA tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
Houston's DeJon Jarreau dunks the ball during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Georgia State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Buffalo's Jeremy Harris chases after a loose ball during the second half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
Buffalo's Montell McRae (1) and Arizona State's Zylan Cheatham (45) chase a loose ball during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Wisconsin guard D'Mitrik Trice, bottom, holds onto the ball under Oregon guard Ehab Amin during the first half of a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 22, 2019, in San Jose, Calif. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson)
Gardner Webb forward Eric Jamison Jr. (2) has the stripped by Virginia guard Kihei Clark, right, during a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Columbia, S.C. Virginia defeated Gardner-Webb 71-56. (AP Photo/Sean Rayford)
Buffalo's Dontay Caruthers celebrates a teammates basket during the first half of a first round men's college basketball game against Arizona State in the NCAA Tournament Friday, March 22, 2019, in Tulsa, Okla. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 22: RJ Barrett #5 of the Duke Blue Devils dunks the ball as teammate Zion Williamson #1 celebrates against the North Dakota State Bison in the second half during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
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That Liberty is in the second round of the NCAA tournament is a testament to the job Ritchie McCay has done since inheriting an 8-24 team only four years ago. With the help of stars Cabbil, Homesley and Scottie James, McCay has gradually rebuilt the Flames into a methodical, disciplined program that can compete with some of the top programs in the nation.

Liberty (28-6) hinted that a special season was possible during non-conference play when it won at UCLA in December. The Flames then captured a share of the Atlantic Sun title and won two of three against fellow NCAA tournament hopeful Lipscomb, including the rubber match in the conference tournament title game.

While Liberty would have been a tough out for any No. 5 seed, it helped that the Flames drew an opponent that had no more NCAA tournament credentials or experience than they did. Mississippi State hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament since 2009, but Ben Howland has restored the Bulldogs to national relevance in year four of his rebuilding process.

Mississippi State’s inexperience showed down the stretch as the Bulldogs seemed to lose focus and ease off the gas pedal after opening up their 10-point lead. Their four- and five-star recruits no longer fought over the top of screens or sprinted out at shooters, and in the end, it cost them.

They’re not going to the second round to face Virginia Tech or Saint Louis. Homesley and Liberty are going in their place.

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