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

Liberty guard Larry Taylor (13) drives against center Joel Vander Pol during practice for an NCAA college basketball tournament game, Monday, March 18, 2013, in Dayton. North Carolina A&T plays Liberty Tuesday evening in a first round game. (AP Photo/Al Behrman) Show caption
Liberty guard Larry Taylor (13) drives against center Joel Vander Pol during practice for an NCAA college basketball tournament game, Monday, March 18, 2013, in Dayton. North Carolina A&T plays Liberty Tuesday evening in a first round game. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

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.”