DAYTON, Ohio - Tear up the record book. The North Carolina A&T men's basketball team ended the longest losing streak in NCAA tournament history with a 73-72 win over the Liberty Flames in front of 12,027 in a first round First Four contest at UD Arena Tuesday night. A&T had lost in its previous nine appearances.
It was also head coach Cy Alexander's first tournament win in six tries. His previous five appearances came as the head coach of S.C. State. The Aggies will advance to face the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, the Louisville Cardinals, in Lexington, Ky., at 6:50 p.m. The game will be televised live on TBS. The win was also historic for the MEAC. It marked the first time since the conference went Division I in 1980-81 that any of its schools have won games in the NCAA tournament in consecutive years as the Aggies followed Norfolk State's upset win from last season with a win of their own.
Senior Austin Witter, the MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, made the key defensive stop in the final second of the game to secure the historic Aggies win. Junior point guard Jeremy Underwood came off the bench to score 19 points on 6-for-6 shooting from the field. Bruce Beckford added 16 points and nine rebounds.
A&T led 73-67 with 1:49 to play. But Liberty's Davon Marshall hit one of his six 3-pointers to cut the lead to three. The Aggies then missed consecutive front ends of one-and-ones in the final 20 seconds to open the door even more for the Flames. In between misses, Tavares Speaks went down the lane and scored on a tough layup over Witter to cut A&T's lead to one with 11 seconds to play. The Aggies then nearly turned the ball over, but they fall on the ball to cause a jump ball.
The alternate possession went to A&T, but Middleton's miss free throw set up Witter's big defensive play. Liberty's John Caleb Sanders went at Witter, but Witter avoided the foul and appeared to get a piece of Sanders' shot as time expired.
"I knew we were up by one at the time," said Witter who had four blocks on Tuesday. "I knew he was going to go to the rim, and I just wanted to play off of him. I saw him a couple times during the game trying to jump into our players' body. So I just tried to jump back, 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."
The Aggies have now won five straight games. The win improves the Aggies to 20-16, their first 20-win season since 1987-88 when the Aggies went 26-3 and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
"I think the whole entire A&T community, the Greensboro community, and the alumni of A&T are all very proud of what these young men have done this past year," said A&T head coach Cy Alexander. "It's been a long time, and for a while, A&T was in this tournament for seven consecutive years in a row, and all of a sudden it kind of went south for whatever reason. So just the e‑mails and texts I've had since we beat Morgan State on Saturday, just everybody just elated over where the program has come in a one‑year period."
Liberty took a 9-2 lead early behind six quick baskets by Speaks. But Beckford would assert himself throughout the first half. Beckford hit his first six shots and finished the first half with 14 points as the Aggies took a 40-33 lead into halftime. Liberty never took the lead in the second half, but the first seven minutes of the second half were entertaining. The Flames cut the lead to one, 42-41, with 15:50 to play. Both teams then scored on four consecutive possessions apiece with the Aggies coming out of the showdown with a 52-51 lead with 13:41 remaining. While Liberty slowed down, the Aggies kept hitting shots and went a 9-0 run to take their biggest lead of the game, 61-51, with 8:36 to play.
The Aggies will try to become the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1.
"We told the players don't worry about Louisville tonight," said Alexander. "Just relax and enjoy some basketball on TV. We'll let them worry about Louisville when we get to Lexington tomorrow."