It’s no surprise that Elijah Cuffee’s senior season at Liberty University has started similar to how much of his Flames’ career has played out — steady, consistent and reliable.
Cuffee, a 6-foot-4 native of Poca and former standout for the Dots, is one of two seniors in Liberty’s regular rotation. He is currently second on the Flames in scoring at 10.4 points to go with 52 percent field goal shooting and 3.1 rebounds. Efficiency is a big reason for the strong start to Cuffee’s senior campaign, as he’s made half of his 44 3-point attempts.
Not bad for someone who takes more pride in his play on the other end of the court.
“Everybody likes to shoot the ball well,” Cuffee said. “For me, it’s more about what can I do to win? I’m a defensive guy and I try to make winning plays and tough, gritty plays. Offense is just a bonus for what I do defensively.”
Cuffee’s length and versatility allow him to guard multiple positions. His knowledge of pack line defense, which he first learned under Poca coach Allen Osborne, gave him a head start entering college as he was familiar with what was to come.
“I got lucky with playing for coach Osborne, because knowing the pack defense going into Liberty and playing it again, I was prepared well defensively,” Cuffee said. “Offensively, he taught me how to play without the ball and try to take advantage of a defense by outsmarting them. When I got to Liberty it was about becoming more efficient.”
Cuffee, a first-team all-state selection two of his three seasons at Poca, helped guide the Dots to the 2015 Class AA state championship.
He has been a fixture in the Liberty lineup throughout his career, starting 84 games over his first three seasons, including 18 as a freshman. That season, the Flames fell in the Atlantic Sun Conference title game, though they won it in 2019, along with the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament win over Mississippi State. The Flames repeated as Atlantic Sun champs in 2020, but never got to play in the NCAA Tournament when it was canceled due to COVID-19.
“What he’s meant to our program can’t be measured in wins,” Flames’ coach Ritchie McKay said. “It can only be measured with a barometer of those inside the program. He was part of our first real recruiting class. (Associate head coach Brad Soucie) saw him first and said, ‘You’re going to love this kid’, and he was 100 percent right.
“His character, integrity and determination have been a light inside our program. He’s been a wonderful addition that’s gone relatively unknown because he doesn’t have gaudy stat numbers.”
McKay also had heavy praise for Cuffee’s defense, even comparing him to one of the top defenders in the NBA.
“I say often he’s our version of Marcus Smart,” McKay said. “What a luxury to have a guy with defensive prowess to really make it really hard for a team’s best player. On the other end, his ability to knock down shots and his unselfishness is another luxury he affords our coaching staff.”
Highlights of the early part of Cuffee’s senior season include a 17-point showing on 6-of-8 shooting with five triples in the Flames’ 11-point triumph over Mississippi State and a 13-point effort on 5-of-7 shooting in a 16-point victory over South Carolina. With 799 career points, Cuffee has a realistic chance of reaching 1,000 career points this season.
The Flames have won seven of their first 10 games, with the losses coming to Purdue, TCU and Missouri. But for a program that was 59-11 over the last two seasons, the setbacks stick with them more than a pair of wins over Southeastern Conference foes.
“It’s not what we wanted it to be because we took some losses we thought we should have won,” Cuffee said of the first 10 games. “I’m a little disappointed because we didn’t get the wins I wanted to get personally, but it’s already happened. When we start conference play, it’s like being 0-0 and a restart for a lot of teams. We want to get some big wins in conference to set ourselves up for the postseason.”
Along the way, Cuffee looks to continue being a steady presence on the court and a calming influence in the locker room, particularly for the team’s younger players. First and foremost, however, is his role as a shutdown defender.
“That’s where I put my money at,” Cuffee said. “I take a lot of pride in it and I’m very serious about my matchup. I try to study up on what they like to do and that’s what I pride myself on is shutting people down. I can not score a point and still feel like I won the day, especially if we win.”