The Liberty University men’s basketball team had its first chance in nine years to go to the Big Dance this season. The last time the team made an appearance in the NCAA men's basketball tournament was 2004, when it lost to St. Joseph’s in the first round. Like last time, the team’s time on the floor this year was short—Liberty went one and done, going down to North Carolina A&T on Tuesday. The Flames lost by just one point, and their chance at victory came down to a final contested layup by junior John Caleb Sanders after A&T missed a free throw.
Liberty is the only team from an evangelical Christian college to compete in the men’s tournament this year. Few Christian colleges compete at the Division I level. This year Liberty was seeded dead last at No. 68.
Even though their tournament appearance was short-lived, the Flames may have a promising future—especially considering how far they came as a team in just one year. In its opening game this season, the team had two starters sidelined with injuries and lost by 42 points.
And it only got worse after that.
The team’s best returning player was ruled out for the season with a stress fracture in his foot. Two others in the playing rotation quit the team, which went on to lose eight games in a row. According to a report in The New York Times, head coach Dale Layer thought it was all “doom and gloom” in the locker room. But faith and hope are a way of life at Liberty, he said, and Layer told his guys as long as they kept the faith, they had a chance. Liberty went into the Big South conference tournament with a dismal regular season record of 11-20.
Then they pulled off four consecutive upsets to win the tournament and receive the conference's automatic bid to the Big Dance, like Cinderella going to the ball.
The Flames are only the second team ever to make it to the NCAA Tournament with 20 or more losses. The other was Coppin State in 2008. But that’s all history now, and the team’s already looking ahead to next year.
"This will lay the groundwork for a lot of things that will happen for our team,” Layer told a Ronoake, Va., TV station. “I think it's a shot in the arm for all of us. It's a well-earned reward to be here for these guys. They overcame so much."
The school’s hope now rests on its women’s team. The Lady Flames won the Big South tournament and, with a 27-6 record, advanced to the NCAA women's tournament seeded 13th. It’s not their first time to the show, but they might have their best chance this year for an upset. The dominant women’s team has won the Big South tournament and gone on to the NCAA tournament 15 out of the last 17 years. The Lady Flames only made it past the first round once, in 2005. This year’s players think they can do it again, their confidence carried by a 14-game winning streak. They face off against No. 4 seed Purdue on Sunday.
Few people outside Lynchburg, Va., noticed Liberty’s loss on Tuesday, but today everyone is talking about the underdog Harvard team slaying No. 3 seed New Mexico last night. In its first ever NCAA tournament victory, the giant killer 14th seed from Massachusetts won 68-62, hitting over 52 percent from the floor. Harvard faces sixth seed Arizona on Saturday.