DAYTON, Ohio — After more than 30 years of trying, North Carolina A&T finally has an NCAA win.
To do it, the Aggies had to survive one last, harrowing, close call.
Substitute guard Jeremy Underwood tripled his average with 19 points, leading the Aggies (20-16) past resilient Liberty 73-72 on Tuesday at the First Four to win their first NCAA tournament game after nine losses.
The victory advanced the Aggies to a showdown with top-seeded Louisville (29-5) in Lexington, Ky., Thursday.
“It's been a long time,” first-year Aggies coach Cy Alexander said.
It could have been pushed back even longer. The Flames (15-21) — only the second team ever to make the NCAA tournament with 20 losses — had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
John Caleb Sanders drove coast to coast and flipped up a left-handed layup in heavy congestion that just glanced off the glass.
“I knew he was going to go to the rim, and I just wanted to play off of him,” A&T defensive star Austin Witter said. “I just tried to keep my hands back, and use my length to alter the shot. I believe I got a little piece of it, but I'm not really sure. I think I did just enough to get it off.”
Sanders was trying to draw a foul as much as make the frantic shot.
“We've had a lot of late-game situations similar to that, and Coach (Dale Layer) has always said to take it to the rim,” Sanders said. “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.”
Asked if he was fouled on the play, he hesitated and then said, “I don't know. It's hard to tell when you're in the midst of a game. They didn't call it. So it wasn't a foul.”
A&T rebounded and, while Sanders rolled in pain on the baseline, began to celebrate a Cinderella season of its own. The Aggies had a losing record before starting play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. Four wins later, they were back in the big dance, putting an end to a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons.
“We worked very, very hard over the last three years since I've been here,” said Underwood, who came in averaging just over 6 points a game. “We always believed in ourselves; we never stopped believing in ourselves. We just kept working hard, and we pulled it out.
“It showed that hard work pays off.”
Underwood was perfect from the field, hitting a career-best six field goals in six attempts. Bruce Beckford added 16 points and Lamont Middleton 14.
“We told the players don't worry about Louisville tonight,” Alexander said. “Just relax and enjoy some basketball on TV. We'll let them worry about Louisville when we get to Lexington tomorrow.”
Davon Marshall had 22 points and Sanders 21 for Liberty.
A&T has a glittering, if now faded, legacy. The Aggies made it to the NCAA tournament seven years in a row 1982-88, but had fallen on hard times. They piled up 15 consecutive losing seasons until their late hot streak this year in the conference tournament pushed them above .500.
They were headed nowhere just 12 days earlier, after a loss at home to Norfolk State in the regular-season finale dropped them to 15-16.
But they roared through the conference tournament, winning each of their first two games by double-figure margins, and then showed some poise down the stretch of the semifinal and final to win close games against Delaware State and Morgan State, respectively.
In the battle of 16 seeds, each team took turns going on runs.
Underwood made two shots then drove the lane and hit a lefty lay-up before Adrian Powell swished a 3 from the left corner for a 61-51 lead with under 9 minutes left.
Underwood hit two foul shots with 1:49 left for a 73-67 lead but Liberty wouldn't give up. Marshall threw in a 3 from the last inch of the corner with 1:32 left, then with 11.2 seconds left, he scored again on a baseline drive off an assist from Sanders to narrow the margin to a point.
With 7 seconds left, Middleton was fouled but missed the front end of the bonus situation, setting the stage for Sanders' wild race against the clock.
Only Coppin State, 16-20 in 2008, had as many losses as the Flames coming into the NCAA tournament. Amazingly, the Flames opened the season by losing their first eight games. Despite two players quitting the team during that discouraging period, others stuck it out and persevered.
Still, they were run out of their own gym in their final home game, 83-68 by VMI, to fall to 10-20 on the season.
But then came an incredible stroll through the Big South tournament including playing, and beating, both of the divisional winners. Their 87-76 upset of Charleston Southern in the conference title game on March 10 assured them of the Big South's automatic spot in the tournament.
“I've been around college basketball since 1976, as a player and a coach, and I've never experienced a year like this,” Layer said. “The depths of this year were the most in those 37 years. And when guys overcome what they have overcome as 18- to 20-year-old kids — wow, I'll take that.”
But it's A&T that will move on.
Witter was reminded of the task ahead, that no No. 16 seed has ever beaten a No. 1 like Louisville. He made a face.
“That's just a statistic,” he said. “We're still going to go out there and play hard, play our game, and no matter what, we're going to try to get the win.”