When Liberty became the first 20-loss team to make the NCAA tournament since Coppin State in 2008, former Green Hope standout Tavares Speaks was overcome with emotion.
I didnt even know where I was when we won the championship game, I was just going crazy, Speaks said last week after Liberty stunned No. 1 seed Charleston Southern in the Big South tournament title game, securing an automatic bid. Its been a long journey and I didnt think when I signed to Liberty that I would ever be able to play in the NCAA tournament, so it was just really cool.
After starting the season 0-8 and finishing the regular season 10-20, the Flames won five straight and will meet N.C. A&T on Tuesday night.
The Flames first trip to the NCAA tournament since 2004 feels familiar for the Raleigh native.
The 6-foot-4 guard has spent his high school and collegiate career adapting to four teams each of which have found great success with Speaks on the court.
Speaks played at Green Hope and as a member of the Apex Force, a local AAU team. Green Hope had a great amount of success thanks to Speaks and teammate J.D. Pelham, culminating in an appearance in the third round of the state playoffs in the 2007-08 season.
As a member of the Force, Speaks catapulted the team to a national tournament held at the ESPN Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla. Force coaches Garry Edwards and Dean Payne knew they had a player who could blend in with any team.
It didnt matter where he ended up, he could adapt to any situation, Edwards said. Thats just his character. He is fun to be around and everyone liked him. Ive coached on several different teams, and when you have kids like (Speaks), it just makes it easier.
Speaks next signed on to play at Cape Fear Community College, where he won two regular-season conference championships and was named a first-team All-America in his final season.
Liberty coach Dale Layer said Speaks has become a leader as a senior. Hes grown as a human being and a player this season, Layer said. Hes progressively gotten better and better. Its just a combination of his hard work and maturity as a player and his ability to trust people thats help him grow on this team.
Speaks averaged 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 1.2 assists during the season. But Speaks had one of his best performances of the tournament against Charleston Southern with18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals in the victory.
Speaks said one of the best parts of playing in the opening round in Dayton, Ohio, will be having the ability to share his story with friends like Raleigh natives John Wall, Darius Johnson-Odom and Julian Gamble, who all have made it to the NCAA tournament.
Those guys have been able to live in that limelight and play on that big stage, Speaks said. Those guys earned at-large bids and lived up to that hype. So for me to get to that stage, at this school, is just something that I never imagined would happen.