Improbably, Liberty and A&T make NCAA field
DAYTON, Ohio (AP) - Liberty's players and coaches woke up at 4:30 a.m. Monday for their charter flight. Instead of departing the airport at 7 in the morning, plane trouble kept them grounded for several hours.
Not even that could ruin coach Dale Layer's mood.
"On 2 1/2 hours of sleep, an 8-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 title to reserve a spot opposite North Carolina A&T in the NCAA First Four on Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena.
The game pits two of the most unlikely of teams in any NCAA tournament. After all, 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. "Guys started to quit. It was a lot of long days of practice. Guys were down on themselves, thinking about next year.''
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 an extremely difficult draw in the Big South tournament. After closing out the regular season with a road 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 North Carolina A&T, a once-proud program that 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.''
There was a time when the Aggies grew accustomed to heading to the NCAA tournament. They made the field seven straight years (1982-88) during one span. But then came the down years. A&T, located in Greensboro, N.C., hadn't had a winning season since 1997.
Finally, it was the Aggies' turn in the spotlight after years spent watching in-state goliaths Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, among others, take all the bows.
"Even though we're in the shadows,'' Aggie Lamont Middletown said, "we still feel pretty good about our chances.''
Now that they are here, the Aggies and Flames figure why stop now?
Layer might as well have been speaking for both teams when he said, "The odds have been stacked up against us from Day 1. But when you have the odds stacked against you, it can turn into the best story.''
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