For a moment, it appeared Kennesaw State’s turnaround campaign hit a snag. The Owls were down 14 to Liberty in the second half, seemingly set to lose the pivotal contest between first-place programs.

Instead, the Owls conjured the finest part of their story yet. They finished on a 38-17 run, defeating the Flames 88-81 Thursday at the KSU Convocation Center.

“What a night for Kennesaw State University,” coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said. “Couldn’t be prouder to coach this group of guys. These guys have a level of perseverance and resolve that’s very rare in 18-to-22-year-olds. My lack of hair and gray hair wishes we wouldn’t get into this situation so much; however, in order to grow, you have to go through some things. I couldn’t be prouder of this group.”

Kennesaw State (21-7, 13-2) took sole possession of first place in the ASUN Conference. It also remained perfect at home, where the Owls have won 14 consecutive games. They’re one of 16 teams in the country without a home blemish. And most importantly, the win put Kennesaw State in the driver’s seat for the No. 1 seed in the looming conference tournament.

For those unfamiliar with ASUN basketball, Liberty (21-7, 12-3) is a powerhouse. While the Owls are enjoying their first 20-win season, Liberty has achieved that feat in seven straight years. The Flames have won three of the last four conference regular-season titles and entered Thursday 62-13 all-time in conference play. They were also 9-0 against Kennesaw State.

None of that mattered Thursday. Now, Kennesaw State effectively has a two-game lead over Liberty for the top seed thanks to the head-to-head tiebreaker. Both teams have three games remaining.

Kennesaw State forward  Brandon Stroud (5) reacts after scoring during the second half against Liberty Flames at the Kennesaw State Convention Center on Thursday, Feb 16, 2023. Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

This was unquestionably Kennesaw State’s most notable victory since moving to Division 1 in 2005. Just three years ago, in Abdur-Rahim’s debut season, the Owls were 1-28. Kennesaw State, which earned its 21st win Thursday, had 25 victories combined from the 2018-19 through 2021-22 campaigns. The school had never had a winning conference record before this season.

“This year was definitely the year, man,” junior guard Chris Youngblood said. “We’ve already been through all the learning experiences. The tough losses, ugly wins, pretty losses, all that type of stuff. So I knew it was time this year.”

Early Thursday, the storyline seemed teetering toward the Owls being close, but just not good enough. They exchanged blows with the Flames throughout the first half but still trailed most of the way. In fact, Kennesaw State led for only five minutes and 12 seconds of the game. Its largest lead was eight, reached with 14 seconds remaining.

The Flames, who entered the evening third in the country in 3-pointers made (291), went 12-for-24 beyond the arc. Guard Darius McGhee – the top scorer in school history – was masterful, scoring 43 points (“pound for pound, that’s a bad dude right there,” Abdur-Rahim said about the 5-foot-9, 160-pounder). McGhee carried the Flames in the first half, even scoring 17 of the team’s first 25 points, and helped Liberty build a five-point halftime advantage (41-36).

Kennesaw State guard Chris Youngblood (left) reaches for a rebound with Liberty Flames guard Darius McGhee during the first at the Kennesaw State Convention Center on Thursday, Feb 16, 2023.  Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

It seemed the game was slipping away when Liberty’s Kyle Rode nailed consecutive 3-pointers to put the Flames up 14 at the 16:55 mark of the second half. But the Owls settled down defensively – Abdur-Rahim lauded the team’s improved communication – and tied the game at 75 with 2:44 remaining. It was another testament to Kennesaw State’s emotional maturity, an area where the team has developed significantly over the season, according to its coach.

“Every time we got close, they started making shots,” Youngblood said. “So once we were able to string together consecutive stops in a row, man, and we just happen to hit our shots. But most importantly, we started stringing together stops in a row. So that’s what got momentum going. Because our DNA is on the defensive end at the end of the day.”

Kennesaw State took over as the more composed team from there. The Owls, fueled by a lively crowd, retook the lead when Spencer Rodgers stole a pass intended for McGhee and Youngblood sank a 3-pointer. Senior guard Terrell Burden, who recently reached the 1,000-career-points milestone, led the Owls late with his three-point play and ensuing layup that made it 83-78 with under a minute left.

Burden, upon making the last shot, flexed and yelled as the crowd erupted.

“I was just feeding off the crowd’s energy,” Burden said. “You hear the roar. And you know where we were coming from being down 14. We didn’t blink. I guess all I could do was just embrace the crowd at that moment, man. I had to just let one out. And normally, that’s not me. But I had to at that point. That was a great feeling.”

As for the boisterous Convocation Center: “We fed off the crowd. Man, that was like the best crowd I’ve ever (experienced) in my life,” Burden said.

Kennesaw State's bench players and fans jump from their seats after their team took the lead in the last minutes of the game.
 Miguel Martinez /

Credit: Miguel Martinez

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Credit: Miguel Martinez

The Owls have three games remaining before the ASUN tournament begins Feb. 27. They’ll host Queens College on Saturday in their final regular-season home contest. The winner of the ASUN tournament secures an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. The Owls are trying to earn their first March Madness experience.

“(Friday) is important; I’m not even getting to Saturday yet,” Abdur-Rahim said. “I’ll go home and I’ll enjoy this, and I’ll start to think about, ‘Okay, I know what the message is. I know we set the tone, but more important than anything, how do we get their attention focused back on a really good Queens College team.’ And that’s what it’s going to be about.

“It’s going to be about getting better. Because you don’t just show up and win. That’s not what championship programs do. And we’re on our way to becoming a championship program. But we’ve got work to do. The job is not finished by any means.”