Flames fall in ‘First 4’

Liberty loses to N.C. A&T, 73-72

When the buzzer sealed Liberty’s win over Charleston Southern University in the Big South Conference Championship March 10, it launched a week-long media frenzy during which the Flames fetched headlines across the nation on the airwaves and in the papers.

The New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and ESPN were all quick to jump on the story. The Times ran a piece March 14 entitled, “Losing 20 Games, Not Faith, on the Way to the NCAA Tournament.”

Whether liked, loved or hated as one of only two 20-loss teams in history to claim a spot in what is arguably the NCAA’s signature event, the Liberty Flames began their unlikely march into college hoops’ postseason play as the media darling of the tournament.

Sitting in the No. 68 seed typically reserved for some lucky team from an irrelevant conference, the Flames were strangely relevant. And so, Tuesday, March 19, Liberty took to the court in Dayton, Ohio to play North Carolina A&T with a shot to play perennial heavyweight Louisville up for grabs.

With less than three minutes to go in what was a back and forth game that A&T took control of in the second half, Liberty found itself down by seven. J.C. Sanders hit a three-point field goal to pull the Flames to within four and make it a two-possession game.

But A&T’s Jeremy Underwood drew a foul and connected on two free throws to restore A&T’s lead to six, 73-67. Liberty countered on a three-point jumper from Davon Marshall to make it 73-70 with 1:25 to go. Marshall led the Flames with 22 points. His six three-point field goals lifted him past Seth Curry to claim Liberty’s record for most three pointers in a season, with 107.

Senior Tavares Speaks came back with a layup to make it a one-point game, 73-72. Speaks recorded 17 points and six boards in the final game of his collegiate career. A&T fumbled the inbound and only won a jump ball by virtue of the rule of alternating possession. On the second inbound, Liberty fouled and sent the Aggies to the charity stripe, where they missed the first shot.

The Flames rebounded, and Sanders took off on a one-man mission with six seconds on the clock.

“We’ve had a lot of late-game situations similar to that, and Coach (Layer) has always said, ‘Take it to the rim,’” Sanders said.

Charging hard into a mess of A&T defenders, Sanders attempted a heavily contested layup.

“They took away my right hand, so I went left and tried to get to the basket, and it just didn’t fall for me,” Sanders said.

The ball bounced out and into the waiting arms of an A&T defender as time expired. The Liberty bench leaped to protest the no-call, but it was to no avail. The Aggies won their first-ever national tournament game.

“We came this far, and it hurts to go down like that,” Sanders said. “When it comes down to the end of the year, one team is going to lose.”

Sanders finished the night with 21 points and nine assists. As a team, Liberty shot 43 percent from the field and 89 percent from the free-throw line.

In spite of the loss, Layer described Liberty’s astounding comeback as giving a needed boost to the program.

“I think this certainly is a shot in the arm for our program, but it’s a shot in the arm for our people in this program, which is way more important,” Layer said.

The experience of competing in the NCAA tournament on a national stage was something that Layer said was the culmination of years of arriving early and staying late. It was a satisfaction that can only be felt by those who have taken part in that labor.

“When you come to these, as a media person or as a fan, you don’t know what these guys’ hearts are like,” Layer said. “This is what they dream about every day when they’re shooting shots and getting up extra lifts and coming to the gym at midnight and asking a coach to rebound for them and asking a girlfriend to rebound for them. This is their moment. This is what it’s all about.”

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