Jeremy Underwood came off the bench to score 19 points, leading North Carolina A&T past 21-loss Liberty, 73-72, on Tuesday at the First Four in Dayton, Ohio, ending an NCAA winless streak at nine games.
The Flames — only the second team ever to make the NCAA Tournament with 20 losses — had a chance to win it. John Caleb Sanders drove coast to coast and flipped up a lefthanded layup in heavy congestion that just missed. A&T (20-16) rebounded and, while Sanders rolled in anguish on the baseline, began to celebrate an end to more than 30 years of disappointment.
Underwood came in averaging just more than 6 points, but he was perfect from the field, hitting six field goals in as many attempts. Bruce Beckford added 16 points and Lamont Middleton had 14.
The victory advanced the Aggies to a showdown with top-seeded Louisville (29-5) in Lexington, Ky., Thursday.
Davon Marshall had 22 points and Sanders 21 for Liberty (15-21).
A&T came into the game 0-9 in NCAA Tournaments, and hadn’t come close to making the elite field since their last trip in 1995.
With the Aggies holding onto a 42-39 lead early in the second half, the teams put on an offensive display that got the capacity crowd into the game.
Liberty scored on five consecutive possessions, making all five shots from the field, and A&T countered by hitting four shots in a row. The last bucket in the sequence, Marshall’s 3-pointer from the right side, narrowed the gap to 52-51.
The pace slowed considerably, more to A&T’s liking. Underwood made two shots, then drove the lane and hit a lefty layin. Seconds later, Adrian Powell swished a 3-pointer from the left corner and the lead was suddenly back to 10 at 61-51.
By that point, Liberty had not scored in almost six minutes, missing seven straight shots from the field.
The Flames made it tight in the end, however. Marshall threw in a three from the last inch of the corner with 1:32 left, then with 11.2 seconds left, he scored again on a baseline drive to narrow the lead to 73-72.
Saint Mary’s 67, Middle Tennessee 54 — Matthew Dellavedova scored 22 points and the Gaels got a good start on their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance, beating the Blue Raiders in the second game of the First Four in Dayton, Ohio.
The Gaels (28-6) make a quick trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play sixth-seeded Memphis Thursday.
Saint Mary’s is making back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances for the first time in its history.
The Gaels reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor. Last year they dropped their opening game to Purdue, 72-69.
With four starters back and Dellavedova, the school’s career scoring leader, handling the ball and making the biggest shots, the Gaels were too much for Middle Tennessee (28-6), which was making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 24 years.
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 4 assists and 6 rebounds.
Tweety Knight led Middle Tennessee with 16 points but the Blue Raiders missed too many close-up shots throughout the game.