Very few college basketball coaches get even one chance to experience the euphoria of making an out-of-nowhere run to a conference tournament title and an automatic NCAA tournament bid.
Dale Layer has now accomplished it twice.
Ten years after Layer's sixth-seeded Colorado State team toppled Wyoming, BYU and UNLV in the Mountain West tournament to earn an improbable NCAA bid, the veteran coach piloted Liberty to a similar feat in the Big South. The Flames became the second 20-loss team to make the NCAA tournament, joining Coppin State's 2008 team on that list by upsetting Charleston Southern 87-76 in Sunday's Big South title game.
"Before the tournament started, I shared with my team what we did at Colorado State and I told them that if you keep working, there's always a chance," Layer said. "I think that gave them some hope. When you have some hope, you have some hard work and you have really good kids, it gives you an opportunity to pull something like this off."
To fully appreciate how improbable Liberty's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2004 is, consider how the season began for the Flames. They lost their first eight games and 10 of their first 11, failing to beat a single Division I opponent until Dec. 31 when they snuck past Western Carolina 63-62.
The start of league play didn't signal a reversal of fortune either considering Liberty went 6-10, finished fifth in its half of the Big South and did not even manage a single two-game win streak. Some early injuries and the loss of standout forward Antwan Burrus for the season put Liberty so far behind in its preparation and cohesiveness that it took the Flames almost the full season to catch up.
"It was really difficult," Layer said. "We came out of the chute losing eight straight, our best returning player never played a minute and we had a time early when we had three starters out. In January, I thought we were playing November basketball, in February, I thought we were playing January basketball and I thought 10 days ago we were getting closer to where we needed to be."
Despite that incremental improvement, even Layer considered his team a long shot entering the Big South tournament, especially since the Flames' draw wasn't exactly favorable.
Up first was tournament host Coastal Carolina, whom Liberty routed by 17 on its home floor on Tuesday night. Next was top-seeded High Point, which fell 61-60 against the Flames in an upset aided by the absence of the Panthers' leading scorer due to injury.
Where Liberty's run truly became serious was in Saturday's semifinals when the Flames bounced a streaking Gardner-Webb team that had won eight straight prior to the game. That set up a title game against second-seeded Charleston Southern, a guard-heavy team that went 12-4 in league play to win the South Division of the Big South.
Liberty first achieved separation in the title game midway through the second half, taking a 58-48 lead on a Joel Vander Pol layup with 11 minutes to go. Charleston Southern eventually crept within five, but back-to-back 3-pointers by Davon Marshall and Tomasz Gielo extended the lead to 14 with 5:33 remaining and the Flames were never seriously threatened again.
Marshall, John Caleb Sanders and Tavares Speaks spearheaded the victory for Liberty, the trio of guards combining for 65 points on 20 of 35 shooting. Charleston Southern guards Saah Nimley, Arlon Harper and Jeremy Sexton tried to help the Buccaneers keep pace, but foul trouble for Harper and ice-cold outside shooting from Nimley thwarted their efforts.
"Nimley and Harper are really good and we went toe-to-toe with them," Layer said. "We got just enough stops and we made just enough plays to build a lead and hang on for the win."
Already some are wondering whether Liberty could be the worst team ever to make an NCAA tournament. There are numerous other teams who have secured NCAA bids with a sub-.500 record, but the Flames have a case considering their No. 299 RPI and 11-20 record prior to the start of the Big South tournament.
Liberty surely will be one of the No. 16 seeds sent to Dayton to play for a spot in the Round of 64, but that didn't dampen the Flames enthusiasm Sunday. They came pouring off the bench as the final buzzer sounded, piling on top of one-another at center court to celebrate becoming this season's most unlikely NCAA tournament team.
"It's just nice to keep playing," Layer said. "I suspect we'll be in Dayton, but we'll be thrilled to be there."
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