N.C. A&T 73, Liberty 72

NC A&T beats Liberty, 73-72, in NCAA First Four game

jjones@charlotteobserver.comMarch 20, 2013 

— When Cy Alexander took the men’s basketball coaching job at N.C. A&T last spring, he told the team he wanted to win a championship for his seven seniors who had never experienced a winning season.

The Aggies would have to play harder than what Alexander had seen on film, and they’d have to play together.

Less than one year later, the players bought into what Alexander was selling, and the fruits of their labor paid off in a historic way. The No. 16 Aggies topped fellow 16 seed Liberty 73-72 Tuesday in a thrilling First Four matchup at the University of Dayton arena to give N.C. A&T its first NCAA tournament victory in 10 tries.

“I think the whole entire A&T community, Greensboro community and the alumni of A&T are all very proud of what these young men have done this past year,” said Alexander, whose team has a date with No. 1 Louisville on Thursday in Lexington, Ky. “It’s been a long time.

“The emails and texts that I’ve had since we beat Morgan State on Saturday (to win the MEAC championship), everybody is just elated over where the program has come in a one-year period.”

After the Aggies (20-16) led by as many as 10 points with less than nine minutes to play, the Flames (15-21) crept back into the game in the closing minutes and had one possession and seven seconds left to win it.

Lamont Middleton missed the front-end of a one-and-one with N.C. A&T up by one. Liberty’s John Caleb Sanders went coast-to-coast, drove into the lane and leaned into 6-foot-8 Austin Witter attempting to initiate contact to draw a foul.

Like most of his off-balance layups on the night, he didn’t put enough spin on the ball off the glass and it came up short as the Aggies rebounded the ball with the clock expiring.

“I knew we were up one at the time so I knew they were going to go at the rim and I just wanted to play off him,” said Witter, who beat his average of three blocks per game by one. “A couple times I had seen him jump into a player’s body so I just tried to jump back and keep my hands up and try to alter the shot. I believe I got a little piece of it but I’m not sure.”

The Aggies built a double-digit cushion with some of their hottest shooting of the season. N.C. A&T shot 57.7 percent from the field and went 5-for-10 from 3-point range in the first half. Their field-goal percentage was the best in a first half since they went 16-for-24 against Campbell in November.

That gave the Aggies a 40-33 advantage entering halftime, led by Bruce Beckford’s 12 points. The second half would belong to reserve guard Jeremy Underwood.

With leading scorer Adrian Powell unable to find his stroke for most of the game, Underwood made all six of his shots and missed just one free throw to score a team-high 19 points. Beckford finished with 16 and Middleton had 14.

Underwood was also trusted to guard Liberty’s Davon Marshall, who hit a couple of 3-pointers in the second half to keep the Flames competitive. Marshall finished with 22 points, including six of 15 3-point attempts.

“I saw that I had the hot hand and I just kept going,” Underwood said. “My teammates believed in me and kept letting me go. My coach believed in me. I told him I wanted to run certain plays and I felt like I could produce, and he had confidence in me. I just went out there and made it happen.”

The nation’s 11th-best team in field goal percentage defense, N.C. A&T held the Flames to 42.6 percent shooting as three of their players – Sanders, Marshall and Tavares Speaks – attempted 46 of the team’s 54 shots. Sanders had 21 points.

N.C. A&T made 51.9 percent from the field after averaging below 40 percent on the season.

While that was a boon for Alexander’s team, his concern was the team’s eight misses from the free-throw line that could have made the end of the game less dramatic.

Saint Mary’s 67, Middle Tennessee 54: Also in Dayton, Matthew Dellavedova scored 22 and Saint Mary’s (28-6) advanced from the First Four to a Thursday game against sixth seed Memphis in Auburn Hills, Mich.

Tweety Knight led Middle Tennessee (28-6) with 16 points.

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