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Improbably, Liberty and N.C. A&T to meet in opener

DAYTON, Ohio (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 2 1/2 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 tonight 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.

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.

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.

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