NCAA off to wild start as A&T holds off Liberty

North Carolina A&T holds off Liberty in fantastic First Four finish.

DAYTON, Ohio — The NCAA tournament kicked off Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena with a… basketball game. Honest to goodness basketball.


After a season of watching teams bludgeon themselves in conference play across the country and where reaching 60 points in a game was considered an outburst, North Carolina A&T outlasted Liberty 73-72 in an NCAA tournament First Four game.


The teams were each seeded 16th in the Midwest region, necessitating their appearance in this first-round game. NC A&T was playing for its first winning season since 1995, which it has now secured at 18-16, while Liberty (15-21) was just the second 20-loss team to ever reach the tournament field.


And NC A&T's reward for winning is a date Thursday night in Lexington against Louisville, the tournament's overall No. 1 seed.


None of that mattered in this tournament kickoff game.


At one point in the second half the teams combined to make nine consecutive shots as Liberty fought back from a 40-33 halftime deficit. The Flames never tied the score in the second half and never took the lead but they were never out of the game. Not until John Caleb Sanders' drive to the basket and shot went awry could NC A&T claim victory.


"We worked very, very hard over the last three years since I've been here," said Aggie guard Jeremy Underwood, who scored a team-high 19 points. "We never stopped believing in ourselves."


It was the first-ever win for the Aggies in 10 tournament appearances and the first time head coach Cy Alexander had won in six NCAA trips, the other five coming at South Carolina State. The closest the Aggies had come to previously winning a tournament game was in 1984 when they lost 70-69 to Morehead State in an opening-round game, a predecessor to these First Four contests.


Alexander is in his first season with the Aggies. He coaches in full motion, using his body language as a remote control for his players. Hands up on defense. Knees bent in your defensive stance. Arms waving as a switch is made, or motioning on offense to get a player into the correct space. When a program hasn't had a winning season in 15 years it needs all of the help it can get.


"I had to do that with this team. This team never won before," said Alexander. "When you get a team – and hopefully over the years I can slow down, and they'll understand. But when you're working with a group of guys that never won, they don't know that every play is important, every defensive possession is important, every offensive possession.

 

"We still take plays off, and when we take plays off, I try to play the play for them and let them know that I guarded a guy for them surreptitiously."


The game had three ties and six lead changes in the first 11-plus minutes until Austin Witter made a three-pointer for the Aggies with 8:38 left in the first half to put his team up 23-22. Their lead grew to as many as 11 points. It was still a seven-point advantage with 3:07 left to play.


Liberty began the season losing its first eight games. It has been playing from behind all season.


Coach Dale Layer paused for a breath, grasped his mouth with his hands as he collected his thoughts before answering his first question in the post-game press conference.


"(I'm) just proud to be around these guys every day," said Layer when he was ready to speak. "A lot of grown men would not have endured what they did. A lot of well-meaning grown men would not have handled what they handled."


A three-pointer by Sanders, who scored 21 points, brought Liberty to within four points. Davon Marshall's three with 1:32 remaining cut the deficit to three points, 73-70. Marshall led all scorers with 22 points. A missed free throw by NC A&T's Adrian Powell gave Liberty the opportunity to tie or get closer. The Flames to within a point on a layup by Tavares Speaks with 0:11 left.


Another missed free throw by the Aggies, this one by Lamont Middleton, put the ball in Sanders' hands. He dribbled the length of the court, penetrating to the basket where Witter – who had already blocked four shots – was waiting.


"We've had a lot of late game situations similar to that and coach has always said take it to the rim," said Sanders. "They took away my right hand, so I went left and tried to get to the basket. It just didn't fall for me."


There was a question of whether or not there was enough contact on the play to warrant a foul call. No call was made, allowing North Carolina A&T to end its dubious NCAA record of nine consecutive tournament losses.


Yes, no 16th seed has ever beaten a No. 1 seed. The Aggies won't worry about it for this night.


They'll just enjoy what was a great start to the Big Dance.