Our analysis ranked the Liberty Flames as the worst team in the NCAA tournament this year with a rating of 5 out of 50, but the school founded by the Rev. Jerry Falwell was relentless in taking North Carolina A&T to the wire.
After ten NCAA Tournament appearances, this one being their first since 1995, North Carolina A&T won its first ever tournament game and will now face overall number one tournament favorite Louisville. Coming off the bench, junior guard Jeremy Underwood had a perfect 6-for-6 shooting night from the field and scored 19 points to lead the Aggies (20-16). In addition, strong performances by junior guard Lamont Middleton and freshman forward Bruce Beckford helped the Aggies survive a relentless Liberty team to win 73-72.
Liberty junior Davon Marshall led the Flames with 22 points. Junior John Caleb Sanders added 21.
Liberty (15-21) opened the game playing like a team undefeated in March and on 6-of-8 shooting took an early seven point lead. At 13:05, star Liberty guard John Caleb Saunders picked up his second foul and headed to the bench. At that point, the Aggies, with a combination of an aggressive defense and hot offense, began to close the gap.
The Flames managed to handle the press and got clean looks at the basket but failed to capitalize. As the up-tempo Aggies continued to press and convert key baskets in transition, they went on a 10-0 run and at the half, led by seven.
To start the second half, Liberty played like the pep talk was working and within the first minute Andrew Smith converted a three point play to cut the Aggies’ lead to four. The Flames, however, had a anemic ten minute stretch shooting 1-of-10 from the field. But the Flames weren’t leaving Dayton without making it close. Juniors Sanders and Marshall kept the March run alive with key baskets and tough defense.
At 5:24, Underwood was fouled on a two point basket and hit the free throw to put the Aggies ahead 68-61. Solid from the line all night and finishing 5-of-6, Underwood hit another pair of free throws to put the Aggies up by six with 1:49 left. But on the next possession, Marshall hit a three and clutch senior Tavares Speaks hit a quick two to cut the Aggies’ lead by one. On the next play, Liberty barely missed stealing the inbound but once the scrum settled, the possession arrow favored the Aggies.
Down by one, Liberty quickly fouled to put the Aggies on the line. The Aggies missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Liberty grabbed the rebound and passed ball to the streaking Saunders with :05 seconds left. Saunders drove the lane but came up just short.
The Aggies finished 52% from the field.