DAYTON, Ohio — Judging from the tears in their eyes after the game, it would have been impossible to tell whether Liberty was 35-0 instead of one of the most surprising underdogs in NCAA tournament history.
A 73-72 loss to North Carolina A&T in Tuesday night's First Four matchup at the University of Dayton Arena officially ended a Flames' season that many thought was over almost before it began.
"A lot of grown men would not have endured what they did," coach Dale Layer said of his players. "A lot of well-meaning grown men would not have handled what they handled. No regrets. I'm very proud of them."
The Flames (15-21), 0-8 to start the season and 10-20 on March 1, improbably made it all the way to the NCAA tournament. It was almost "Hoosiers" come to life.
"The season started out bad for us," said guard Davon Marshall, who led the Flames with 22 points on Tuesday night. "We were struggling a lot with injuries and everything. We overcame that. We kept praying, kept working hard, kept believing in Coach, what he was telling us. I'm just proud of my teammates that we made it this far and fought this hard."
The Flames – only the second team ever to make the NCAA tournament with 20 losses – had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
Reserve guard Jeremy Underwood, who tripled his average with 19 points to lead A&T (20-16), hit two foul shots with 1:49 left for a 73-67 lead.
True to form, Liberty didn't roll over. 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 John Caleb Sanders to narrow the margin to a point.
With 7 seconds left, the Aggies' Lamont Middleton was fouled but missed the front end of the bonus situation, setting the stage for the Flames to extend their dream run.
Sanders took a pass and drove coast to coast, flipping up a left-handed layup in heavy congestion that just glanced off the glass with 2 seconds left.
"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, who scored 21 points, 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 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 ended a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons by winning their last four games to capture the Mid-Eastern Athletic Association tournament title.
The victory advanced the Aggies to a showdown with top-seeded Louisville (29-5) in Lexington, Ky., Thursday.
Only Coppin State, 16-20 in 2008, had as many losses as the Flames coming into the NCAA tournament. But that didn't make it any easier to accept a final loss.
"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."
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