DAYTON, Ohio — After more than 30 years of trying, North Carolina A&T finally has an NCAA win.
To do it, the Aggies had to survive one last, harrowing, close call.
Substitute guard Jeremy Underwood tripled his average with 19 points, leading the Aggies (20-16) past resilient Liberty 73-72 on Tuesday at the First Four to win their first NCAA tournament game after nine losses.
The victory advanced the Aggies to a showdown with top-seeded Louisville (29-5) in Lexington, Ky., Thursday.
“It’s been a long time,” first-year Aggies coach Cy Alexander said.
It could have been pushed back even longer. The Flames (15-21) — only the second team ever to make the NCAA tournament with 20 losses — had a chance to win it in the final seconds.
John Caleb Sanders drove coast to coast and flipped up a left-handed layup in heavy congestion that just glanced off the glass.
“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 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 (Dale Layer) 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 had a losing record before starting play in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament. Four wins later, they were back in the Big Dance, putting an end to a string of 15 consecutive losing seasons.
“We worked very, very hard over the last three years since I’ve been here,” said Underwood, who came in averaging just over 6 points a game. “We always believed in ourselves; we never stopped believing in ourselves. We just kept working hard, and we pulled it out.
“It showed that hard work pays off.”
Saint Mary’s 67, Middle Tennessee 54: DAYTON, Ohio — Matthew Dellavedova scored 22 points on Tuesday night, and Saint Mary’s got a good start on its second straight NCAA tournament appearance, beating Middle Tennessee 67-54 in the First Four.
The Gaels (28-6) make a quick trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play sixth-seeded Memphis on Thursday.
Credit Dellavedova for making a difference, as he has all season. The point guard went 7 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 7 behind the arc, and had four assists and six rebounds.
Tweety Knight led Middle Tennessee with 16 points. The Blue Raiders went only 4 of 12 from behind the arc, hitting one fewer 3-pointer than Dellavedova.