DAYTON, Ohio — His team’s mere presence in the NCAA tournament certainly defied odds, but somehow Liberty junior John Caleb Sanders had the ball in his hands in the final seconds, his team trailing by one and the underdog Flames begging fate to carry them farther.
Sanders sprinted down the court at University of Dayton Arena, cutting across the paint and sending the possible game-winner into the air.
“This is what they dream about every day,” Flames Coach Dale Layer said later.
Layer would never suggest the team’s season came down to those final seconds and to that last prayer of a shot; they’d been through too much together. But the team’s surprising late-season run ended with a fizzle Tuesday night. Sanders fell hard to the court, and his layup caromed off the glass. The Flames, only the second team to ever carry 20 losses into the NCAA tournament, fell to North Carolina A&T, 73-72, in a play-in game before a crowd of 12,027, bringing to close a season where the trials and tribulations far outnumbered the victories.
The Aggies snapped their own ominous streak, picking up the school’s first tournament win. Making their first appearance since 1995, they entered the tournament 0-9 all-time, an NCAA record for tourney futility. North Carolina A&T advances to face Louisville, the tournament’s top overall seed, on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. The Flames, meanwhile, will return to Lynchburg, taking stock of a season where the losses were easy to count — 21 in all — but for players, the wins feel more lasting.
“A lot of grown men would not have endured what they did,” Layer said. “A lot of well-meaning grown men would not have handled what they handled.”
The Flames, who started the season 0-8, battled injuries all year, saw two players quit, lost an assistant coach to disciplinary action at midseason and carried the nation’s 289th-best RPI into the NCAA tournament, nearly pulled out the surprising win.
They faced a seven-point deficit at halftime but chipped away at the Aggies’ lead. Midway through the half, the teams began trading baskets. North Carolina A&T seemed to have an answer for every Liberty bucket. When Sanders hit Andrew Smith for an alley-oop dunk, the Aggies’ Lamont Middleton countered with a three-pointer on the other end. When Sanders squeezed his way into the paint for a layup, Adrian Powell charged to the hoop for North Carolina A&T.
Finally, with 13 minutes 37 seconds to play, junior Davon Marshall hit a three-pointer to cut the Aggies’ lead to 52-51, and Liberty seemed to have captured the momentum. There would be no fanning the Flames, however, as Layer immediately called a timeout. “We were wore out,” the coach said.
Coming out of the break, the Flames’ shooters certainly looked tired. They went scoreless for the next 5:44, as the Aggies built a 10-point lead.
The Flames battled back, and Marshall’s three-pointer with 1:30 remaining made it a one-possession game, 73-70.
After Aggie Lamont Middleton missed the front end of a one-and-one with seven seconds left. Sanders sprinted the length of the court with the ball. He plowed through the paint, bumping into the Aggies’ Austin Witter just as he let loose a desperate left-handed shot.
“We’ve had a lot of late-game situations similar to that, and Coach has always said to take it to the rim,” Sanders said.
Said Aggies Coach Cy Alexander, “I knew he was going to try to penetrate and try to draw some body contact.”
There was contact but no whistle.
“We came this far, and it hurts to go down like that,” said Sanders, who had 21 points and nine assists for the Flames.
Marshall, Sanders and senior Tavares Speaks combined for all but 12 of the Flames’ points. The Liberty bench managed just a single point, compared with 21 from the Aggies’ reserves. North Carolina A&T’s Jeremy Underwood came off the bench to lead the Aggies with 19 points, shooting 6 of 6 from the field.
Despite the loss — and a 15-21 record — Layer said the past couple of weeks underscored the program’s promising future. The Flames should return four starters next season, in addition to getting back talented forward Antwan Burrus, who missed this season with a foot injury.
“This certainly is a shot in the arm for our program,” the coach said. “But it’s a shot in the arm for the people within our program, which is way more important.”
● SAINT MARY’S 67, MIDDLE TENNESSEE 54: Already the Gaels’ all-time scoring leader, Matthew Dellavedova was intent on adding to his career tally Tuesday. In a plodding defensive battle, the senior guard managed to put up 22 points in leading the Gaels past the Blue Raiders in Tuesday’s late game.
Winning the battle of 11 seeds, the Gaels (28-6) advance to face No. 6 Memphis in Auburn Hills, Mich., on Thursday. The Blue Raiders (28-6) held a slim lead midway through the first half and were within just three points midway through the second. But the Gaels pulled away late, thanks in part to junior Stephen Holt, who scored 12 of his 18 points in the final 20 minutes.
In a losing effort, senior guard Marcos Knight led the Blue Raiders with 16 points, six rebounds and six assists.