Liberty, A&T ready for chance to dance

RUSTY MILLER AP Sports Writer Published:

DAYTON (AP) -- Liberty's players and coaches woke up at 4:30 a.m. Monday for their charter flight. Instead of departing the airport at 7 in the morning, plane trouble kept them grounded for several hours.

Not even that could ruin coach Dale Layer's mood.

"On 21⁄2 hours of sleep, an 8-hour plane delay -- hey, it's great to be in Dayton!" Layer said with a wide smile.

After where the Flames have been this season, what's a few more hours? It's amazing they needed aircraft to fly to the NCAA tournament.

Despite losing their first eight games and having a 10-20 record late in the season, they won their final five games including the Big South title to reserve a spot opposite North Carolina A&T in the NCAA First Four on Tuesday night at the University of Dayton Arena.

The game pits two of the most unlikely of teams in any NCAA tournament. After all, A&T (18-16) was nearing a 16th consecutive losing season just two weeks ago -- before it surged to take the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament title.

Yet the journey of Liberty, an evangelical Christian school in Lynchburg, Va., surpasses just about any other stone-casting David in the tournament's history.

Only one other team has ever made the NCAA field with 20 losses -- Coppin State in 2008.

"The low point was probably the beginning of the year when we were 0-8," guard Davon Marshall said. "Guys started to quit. It was a lot of long days of practice. Guys were down on themselves, thinking about next year."

Injuries, defections and some difficult games conspired to send the Flames off on that abysmal start.

"When you're 0-8, a lot of people quit," Layer said. "Men quit. Grown-ups quit. But our guys just kept coming back. I told them in January, 'There's going to be a story in March about somebody -- there is every year -- that's a Cinderella story.' And I said, 'Why couldn't it be us?'"

Still, the Flames were run out of their own gym on Senior Night to fall to 10-20 and faced an extremely difficult draw in the Big South tournament.

After closing out the regular season with a road win at Radford, they opened with the host school (Coastal Carolina), played a No. 1 seed in the league's North Division (High Point), a team riding an eight-game winning streak (Gardner-Webb) and then the best team in the conference (Charleston Southern). And won them all.

"Every single year we hear about a team that Greg Gumbel's doing a story on that was 0-10 or something like that," reserve center Joel Vander Pol said. "So, looking back now, it kind of made Coach Layer look like a prophet."

Most years, March Madness fanatics would be drawn to North Carolina A&T, a once-proud program that had fallen on hard times. Just 14-16 heading into its conference tournament, the Aggies -- who live and die by coach Cy Alexander's scrambling, physical defense -- pulled off four wins over five days to punch their first ticket to the NCAA field since 1995.

"We hadn't won more than two games in a row all year," Alexander said. "Fortunately for us, the guys waited until the right time to win three -- plus one more."

There was a time when the Aggies grew accustomed to heading to the NCAA tournament. They made the field seven straight years (1982-88) during one span.

But then came the down years. A&T, located in Greensboro, N.C., hadn't had a winning season since 1997.

Finally, it was the Aggies' turn in the spotlight after years spent watching in-state goliaths Duke, North Carolina and North Carolina State, among others, take all the bows.

"Even though we're in the shadows," Aggie Lamont Middletown said, "we still feel pretty good about our chances."

Now that they are here, the Aggies and Flames figure why stop now?

Layer might as well have been speaking for both teams when he said, "The odds have been stacked up against us from Day 1. But when you have the odds stacked against you, it can turn into the best story."

Blue Raiders good on the road

DAYTON -- An extra trip to start the NCAA tournament? Not a problem. Middle Tennessee rarely loses its way when it leaves its Murphy Center home.

In a way, it's fitting that the Blue Raiders had to pack for a couple extra days. Their prowess on the road was the overriding quality that landed them in the field of 68 as part of the First Four in Dayton.

Louisiana in Lafayette? Vanderbilt in Tennessee? Been there, won that.

And, ultimately, it won them a place on the tournament's opening night, matched against Saint Mary's (27-6), another team that needed an at-large bid after failing to knock off its biggest nemesis in the West Coast Conference tournament.

The Blue Raiders (28-5) were a bubble team after suffering an upset in the semifinals of the Sun Belt tournament, leading to a long and uneasy wait in Murfreesboro for that NCAA selection show. The committee looked them over, measured them against the other candidates for the final spots, and honed in on how they did when they were staying at a hotel.

Middle Tennessee went 11-3 on the road, including overtime losses at Akron and at Arkansas State. They were 1-2 at neutral sites, 16-0 at home. The 11 wins on the road are second-most in the country.

"Road games this year helped us out, and the committee rewarded us for playing the road games, even though we didn't win (all) of them," guard Bruce Massey said.

They won enough of them to earn their first trip to the NCAA tournament in 24 years.

"The difference between Middle Tennessee and some of the other teams, in our mind, was their ability to win on the road," said Mike Bobinski, Xavier's athletics director and head of the selection committee. "The other teams you talked about really struggled to take their show on the road and win against quality teams, and that probably was the deciding factor."

It goes back to last season, when the Blue Raiders beat UCLA by 20 points in Los Angeles at the start of the season.

"We just kind of dominated the game," coach Kermit Davis said. "And I think that just really set our guys apart that we were a good team, and it convinced them that we were a good team and gave them the confidence that we could go anywhere in the country and win on the road."

That wasn't the only thing in their favor. The Blue Raiders didn't lose two games in a row all season, a mark of consistency. They won 21 out of 22 games during one stretch, the only defeat coming in overtime at Arkansas State.

That helped them get a No. 11 seed -- matching the highest in school history -- and their first berth in the NCAA tournament since 1989. Middle Tennessee has one of the most experienced rosters in the tournament -- 13 juniors and seniors -- and a bench that provides 42 percent of the Blue Raiders' playing time.

"That kind of helps you, that you can go on the road and win at tough places," Davis said.

The winner of the First Four game gets another quick trip -- to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play Memphis on Thursday.

Saint Mary's (27-6) is just glad to get away from rival Gonzaga, which was No. 1 in the final AP college basketball poll on Monday and got the top seed in the West Regional. Saint Mary's lost to the Zags three times during the season, including the conference tournament.

The Gaels lost only three times in their final 22 games this season, all three of them against Gonzaga.

Fortunately, the Bulldogs are back in Salt Lake City while the Gaels are in Dayton, making an NCAA appearance for the third time in four years. They reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor, missed out in 2011, and made it back last season, losing to Purdue 72-69 in their opening game.

It's the first back-to-back NCAA appearances in the California school's history. They return four starters and 10 players from last year's team.

"I think there's a value to having been in the NCAA tournament," coach Randy Bennett said. "There are some things that happen in the NCAA tournament that are different than the regular season. We have players that are going through the process a second or third time. That helps us."

The Gaels were a bit travel-weary when they landed in Dayton on Monday evening for a practice, having left campus at 6:15 a.m.

"It's been kind of a whirlwind," guard Stephen Holt said. "It's pretty much get all my stuff packed and get on the plane."

Sounds familiar.

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