The shot that sent Radford to the NCAA tournament was the product of a broken play.
The Highlanders completely botched what coach Mike Jones designed in the huddle to try to create a driving lane for point guard Carlik Jones.
Two of Jones’ teammates were supposed to set consecutive screens for him at the top of the key, but guard Donald Hicks arrived late after he appeared to forget his role. Neither Hicks nor Ed Polite Jr. properly screened Jones’ defender, forcing the 6-foot freshman to improvise on the fly.
With the score tied, the set play deteriorating and time running out, Jones did the only thing he could under the circumstances — pull up from NBA range and shoot the ball with confidence. His thunderbolt of a 3-pointer as time expired gave Radford a 55-52 victory over Liberty in Sunday’s Big South title game and sent the Highlanders to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
“It has always come naturally to me being fearless,” Jones told Yahoo Sports. “I feel like I live for moments like this. The play broke down. There were two seconds left and I had to let it go. Luckily, the shot fell.”
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Jones’ shot capped a season that began with Radford being projected to finish seventh in the Big South and ended with the Highlanders (22-14, 12-6) exceeding all expectations. The duo of Jones and Polite fueled Radford’s ascent to second in the Big South, just a game behind preseason league favorite UNC Asheville.
A huge part of Radford’s success has been Jones emergence as one of the Big South’s best point guards as a freshman. The honorable mention all-conference selection averaged 11.7 points and 2.9 assists per game this season and scored in double figures in each of the Highlanders’ final nine contests.
A Cincinnati native who led Aiken High School to four straight district championships, Jones was not heavily recruited. Radford learned of him via former director of basketball operations Matthew Futch, who was from Akron and had seen Jones play.
“I came to Radford on a visit, and I loved the team, I loved the campus and I loved the coaches,” Jones said. “I really appreciated that the coaches were so interested in my future education-wise. That played a big part in my decision because other schools were just worried about basketball.”
It was no surprise that Radford would put the ball in Jones’ hands with the game on the line on Sunday afternoon. Not only had Jones sank a jumper at the buzzer to beat High Point earlier this season, his dribble penetration was one of the few things working for the Highlanders on Sunday.
Jones led the Highlanders with 13 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds, but Radford shot only 36.2 percent from the field as a team. As a result, the Highlanders didn’t put away a fifth-seeded Liberty team they had beaten twice previously until the game’s final possession.
The Radford bench spilled onto the court when Jones’ shot went in, chased him down and engulfed him in a dog pile. Jones said the notifications on his phone were “going crazy” within minutes of his shot too.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said. “I have gotten to look at the shot, and it’s still amazing to me.”
There’s nothing about Radford’s resume that suggests it will be able to do any damage as a No. 15 or 16 seed in the NCAA tournament. Not only did the Highlanders lose to all three power-conference foes they faced this season by 10 or more points, the best team they beat all season was probably UC Davis in overtime.
Of course, none of that matters to Jones. Asked what he’s looking forward to most about playing in the NCAA tournament, he said with no hesitation, “I’m looking forward to pulling an upset.”
Thanks to a broken play and a beautiful shot, the Highlanders can dream big.
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