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TCU 56, Liberty 52: Frogs hold on to win Hall of Fame Classic Championship

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RJ Nembhard led the charge for TCU as they scraped out a win over Liberty.

NCAA Basketball: Hall of Fame Classic Championship Game Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

TCU held on against a tough Liberty squad, 56-52, on Sunday afternoon to win the Hall of Fame Classic tournament in Kansas City. A chaotic end to the game saw TCU turn it over twice in their backcourt as they almost faltered late.

Leading 54-48 with 38 seconds remaining, Kevin Easley pulled down a rebound and handed it to Mike Miles. Miles tried to force a pass over a big defender, as Liberty moved into a press, and Liberty converted that into a quick layup, cutting the deficit to four.

On the ensuing inbounds play RJ Nembhard turned the ball over, and Liberty scored quickly once again, making it a 54-52 lead with 30 seconds left.

On the following play Liberty fouled Taryn Todd, sending him to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity with 17 seconds left. Todd missed the front-end, and Liberty came back down the court with a chance to tie or win.

Fortunately, TCU’s defense stood tall. Francisco Farabello poked the ball out of bounds with two seconds left, and the Flames threw the inbounds pass out of bounds for a turnover. Nembhard was fouled on the next play for TCU, and he sunk two free throws to seal TCU’s victory.

Nembhard led the Frogs with 14 points on the day, in his second game back since clearing COVID protocol. He also contributed six rebounds and four assists, in a complete effort from the junior.

“It’s tough being out for 14 days and only getting two practices in,” Nembhard said afterward, “Can’t make any excuses.”

In his two games back Nembhard has helped spark a defensive effort that has made Jamie Dixon proud. Coming into Sunday Liberty was the best three-point shooting team in the country, and the Frogs held them to just 6-28 on the day.

“We came up with the rebounds and loose balls, and took care of the basketball and guarded the three.” Dixon said, “Our goal was five [made three’s allowed] and we held them to 6-28.”

“We thought this was going to be a strength of ours and it was certainly put to the test with this team.”

It was a good thing the Frogs shut down Liberty from range, because offensively the Frogs struggled to find a consistent rhythm throughout the day. As a team TCU shot just 40% from the floor (20-50).

TCU did, however, step up from the free throw line, knocking down 12 of 16 attempts, including the two by Nembhard with 0.2 seconds remaining.

Kevin Samuel, coming off a 16-point, 18-rebound effort against Tulsa found himself in foul trouble in the first half, and was limited to 26 minutes on Sunday. He finished with eight points and five rebounds.

Dixon mentioned after the game that Samuel, when he’s not in foul trouble, needs to be a bigger part of the offense.

“We got it to him some down the stretch but he needs to get more than seven shots,” said Dixon, “I’ve got to put more stuff in to get him touches down low.”

Liberty is a tough matchup for a variety of reasons. They shoot the three incredibly well, they’re a senior-laden bunch, and they want to play with a ton of tempo. All of that on just 12 hours rest proved to be a big challenge for TCU, despite the Frogs coming away with the win.

“This is a hard team to play against in a 12-hour turnaround,” Dixon noted, “and they’re the worst team to play in the country with their style of play, their pace, and the way they shoot the three.”

“Against Tulsa and Liberty you beat two teams who beat power five teams regularly. Those are hard to play.”

TCU moves to 3-0 now, with three solid wins, having hardly practiced at all, and without practicing with a full squad yet this fall. They’ll get Jaedon LeDee back from COVID protocol this week, and will have their first two practices as a full team ahead of Thursday night’s game against Northwestern State.

On what he’s learned about this team early on, Dixon had this to say, “I think we played a lot of guys. Our minutes were kind of sporadic. We’re still finding ourselves and we still have Jaedon out, one of our best players. We’re a team figuring it out.”

It’s nice to be figuring out while still winning, and that’s exactly where the Frogs find themselves right now.