Ultimate underdogs Liberty, N.C. A&T clash to open NCAA tournament

DAYTON, Ohio — Liberty’s players and coaches woke up at 4:30 a.m. Monday for their charter flight. Instead of departing the airport at 7, plane trouble kept them grounded for several hours.

Not even that could ruin coach Dale Layer’s mood.

“On 2½ hours of sleep, an eight-hour plane delay — hey, it’s great to be in Dayton!” Layer said with a wide smile.

After where the Flames have been this season, what’s a few more hours? It’s amazing they needed aircraft to fly to the NCAA tournament.

Despite losing their first eight games and having a 10-20 record late in the season, they won their final five games, including the Big South championship, to reserve a spot opposite North Carolina A&T in the NCAA First Four on Tuesday night at University of Dayton Arena.

The game pits two of the most unlikely of teams in any NCAA tournament. A&T (18-16) was nearing a 16th consecutive losing season just two weeks ago — before it surged to take the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title.

Yet the journey of Liberty, an evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., surpasses just about any other stone-casting David in the tournament’s history. Only one other team has ever made the NCAA field with 20 losses: Coppin State in 2008.

“The low point was probably the beginning of the year, when we were 0-8,” guard Davon Marshall said. “It was a lot of long days of practice.”

Injuries, defections and some difficult games conspired to send the Flames off on that abysmal start.

“When you’re 0-8, a lot of people quit,” Layer said. “Men quit. Grown-ups quit. But our guys just kept coming back. I told them in January, ‘There’s going to be a story in March about somebody — there is every year — that’s a Cinderella story.’ And I said, ‘Why couldn’t it be us?’ ”

Still, the Flames were run out of their own gym on Senior Night to fall to 10-20 and faced a difficult draw in the Big South tournament. After closing the regular season with a win at Radford, they opened with the host school (Coastal Carolina), played a No. 1 seed in the league’s North Division (High Point), a team riding an eight-game winning streak (Gardner-Webb) and then the best team in the conference (Charleston Southern).

And won them all.

“Every single year we hear about a team that Greg Gumbel’s doing a story on that was 0-10 or something like that,” reserve center Joel Vander Pol said. “So, looking back now, it kind of made Coach Layer look like a prophet.”

Most years, March Madness fanatics would be drawn to A&T, a once-proud program that made the field seven straight years in the 1980s but had fallen on hard times. Just 14-16 heading into its conference tournament, the Aggies — who live and die by coach Cy Alexander’s scrambling, physical defense — pulled off four wins over five days to punch their first ticket to the NCAA field since 1995.

“We hadn’t won more than two games in a row all year,” Alexander said. “Fortunately for us, the guys waited until the right time to win three — plus one more.”