If we didn’t know how college basketball teams and players can gather steam in March, we would be certain that the script for Davon Marshall and Liberty’s NCAA Tournament run was penned by an inspiring screenwriter.
How else can you explain how a team with a dreary 10-20 record, led by a player no one wanted out of high school, is now one victory from a date against the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament? But here’s Liberty, which plays North Carolina A&T in the First Four tonight (6:40, TruTV) in Dayton, Ohio, and Marshall, the 5-foot-11 junior guard from Niagara Falls High School, in position to bring the script to life.
The winner takes on Louisville, the top seed in the Midwest Region, on Thursday at Rupp Arena in Lexington, Ky.
“From the beginning of the postseason guys just wanted it more,” Marshall said. “We finally figured out we had a chance to win it so guys just started playing harder.”
The moment the Big South Tournament began, Marshall and the Flames (15-20) seemed destined for something special. Marshall scored 28 points in a 78-61 win over Coastal Carolina and 16 in a 61-60 upset of High Point in the quarterfinals. He added the final points with a pair of free throws with 14 seconds left in a 65-62 semifinal triumph over Gardner-Webb, then took home MVP honors with 20 points off six three-pointers in the 87-76 championship game victory over top-seeded Charleston Southern. He made 17 of 24 three-point shots in the tournament.
“It was a little surreal at first and we were just happy to get the win but now it’s set in,” Marshall said. “It’s a blessing, and we worked real hard this year and stayed focused. It’s a dream come true.’’
Few teams have had to endure more adversity than Liberty. It lost its best player, Antwan Burrus, to a foot injury before the season began and started the year 0-8. The agony didn’t end there.
Two more starters went down with injuries while two others departed. Assistant coach Jason Eaker pleaded guilty to a felony charge of unlawful possession of a controlled substance and was placed on administrative leave. The losses mounted.
Liberty suffered an 83-66 loss at home on Feb. 26 to a Virginia Military Institute team that had lost six straight, but it was just the jolt the Flames needed before the conference tournament.
“That kind of let us know that we needed to step it up,” Marshall said. “The last game of the season we won and that’s when we started our streak.”
Both the University at Buffalo and Niagara showed interest in Marshall during his senior season at Niagara Falls but neither offered a scholarship so he attended Monroe College in New Rochelle.
“A lot of coaches wanted to see me play the point more, they didn’t know if I could play the point position,” Marshall said. “I was playing two guard in high school so they thought I was too small to play that position on the college level.”
Niagara Falls coach Sal Constantino said Marshall is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body and schools shied away.
“A lot of coaches tell you that you’re a dime a dozen,” he said. “That was the year The Falls got knocked off early in the state tournament and we didn’t make it to Buff State. Not being able to go further hurt his chances. He’s definitely the best shooter we’ve ever had. There’s always a space on the court for a guy who can shoot the ball like that.”
At Monroe, he played shooting guard as a freshman and split time at both backcourt spots as a sophomore, when he averaged a team-high 16.1 points while shooting 46 percent from three-point range. Wichita State and UNLV made offers but Marshall wanted a school with a Christian foundation and picked Liberty.
“I took the visit here with my dad and my grandfather and we liked the atmosphere and the coaches and they welcomed us with open arms,” Marshall said. “It was a chance to stay around a place with a Christian background, growing up in a Christian family, it sounded like a good opportunity for me.”
Perhaps the only disappointment for Liberty is not going up against Duke and former Flames guard Seth Curry, who played one season at the school. Marshall, who averages 13.4 points, is just two three-pointers from breaking Curry’s single-season record of 102.
“A lot of people wanted us to play Duke because Seth went here and they wanted to play against him again,” Marshall said. “We’re just going to go out and compete and try and get a win.”