DAYTON, Ohio — Judging from the tears in their eyes after the game, it would have been impossible to tell whether Liberty was 35-0 instead of one of the most surprising underdogs in NCAA tournament history.
A 73-72 loss to North Carolina A&T in Tuesday night’s First Four matchup at the University of Dayton Arena officially ended a Flames’ season that many thought was over almost before it began.
“A lot of grown men would not have endured what they did,” coach Dale Layer said of his players. “A lot of well-meaning grown men would not have handled what they handled. No regrets. I’m very proud of them.”
The Flames (15-21), 0-8 to start the season and 10-20 on March 1, improbably made it all the way to the NCAA tournament. It was almost “Hoosiers” come to life.
“The season started out bad for us,” said guard Davon Marshall (Niagara Falls), who led the Flames with 22 points. “We were struggling a lot with injuries and everything. We overcame that. We kept praying, kept working hard, kept believing in Coach, what he was telling us. I’m just proud of my teammates that we made it this far and fought this hard.”
Marshall did break Seth Curry’s school record for three-pointers (102), finishing with 107.
The Flames — only the second team ever to make the NCAA tournament with 20 losses — had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
Reserve guard Jeremy Underwood, who tripled his average with 19 points to lead A&T (20-16), hit two foul shots with 1:49 left for a 73-67 lead.
True to form, Liberty didn’t roll over. Marshall threw in a three from the last inch of the corner with 1:32 left, then with 11.2 seconds left, he scored again on a baseline drive off an assist from John Caleb Sanders to narrow the margin to a point.
With 7 seconds left, the Aggies’ Lamont Middleton missed the front end of the bonus situation, setting the stage for the Flames.
Sanders took a pass and drove coast to coast, flipping up a left-handed layup in traffic that glanced off the glass with 2 seconds left.
“I knew he was going to go to the rim, and I just wanted to play off of him,” A&T defensive star Austin Witter said. “I just tried to keep my hands back, and use my length to alter the shot. I believe I got a little piece of it, but I’m not really sure.
“I think I did just enough to get it off.”
Sanders (21 points) was trying to draw a foul as much as score.