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College basketball notebook: Liberty rides the wind in its sails
Liberty University players celebrate at midcourt after winning the Big South Conference tournament Sunday.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
The Liberty University men’s basketball team had to deal with plenty of adversity early in the season, but it has become an unlikely champion.
The Flames began the season hoping their best player, Antwan Burris, would recover from a foot injury. But he wound up sitting out this season as a medical redshirt.
Because of injuries, Tomasz Gielo missed the first six games and Joel Vander Pol missed the first nine.
Jarred Jourdan played six games before leaving the team. Kelly Assinesi played 12 games before exiting.
The Flames lost their first eight games.
“Because of all that [adversity], we never really could get enough reps together to move forward like everybody else in the country,” Liberty coach Dale Layer said. “We were just trying to hold it all together.
“These guys just kept working.”
The Flames entered last week’s Big South tournament with 20 losses. They finished fifth in their six-team division with a 6-10 league mark.
But they are heading to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004.
Liberty beat Coastal Carolina, High Point, Gardner-Webb and Charleston Southern to win the Big South tournament.
“Beating Coastal in the first round at Coastal was eye-opening for our guys,” Layer said. “We got off to a great start against High Point and held on. When the wind gets in your sails and good things are happening, guys kind of swell up and feel like anything’s possible.”
Liberty has won five straight games, including a victory at Radford to end the regular season.
“When you go into a tournament, everybody has a clean slate,” Layer said. “It breathes life into every team. It breathes hope into every team.”
With a 15-20 record, Liberty is no doubt headed for one of next week’s opening-round NCAA tournament games in Dayton, Ohio. Liberty is just the second team with 20 losses to make the NCAA field. Coppin State was 16-20 when it made the 2008 NCAA tournament.
“There’s no greater joy in coaching than seeing your team experience a lifelong dream,” said Layer, who also steered Colorado State to the NCAAs in 2003.
“When they put their championship hats on and hoisted the trophy … [it] was a thrill, knowing what I know about going to the NCAA and some of the experiences that they will have associated with that. That’s why you coach. It’s because you’re able to share moments like that with kids.
“It’s nearly life-changing for a lot of these guys.”
Layer is in his fourth season as Liberty’s coach.
2 ODAC teams to play in Sweet 16
Two ODAC teams are each one win away from a return trip to the Salem Civic Center.
Randolph-Macon beat Virginia Wesleyan in the title game of the ODAC men’s basketball tournament at the civic center last month.
Each has won two games in the NCAA Division III tournament and is headed to the state of Massachusetts for the Sweet 16. Winning Saturday will put them in the elite eight in Salem next week.
Randolph-Macon (21-9) will visit Amherst (26-2), which won the 2007 Division III crown in Salem.
The Yellow Jackets got off to an 0-3 start. In mid-January, their record was just 8-8.
“Toward the end of January, the beginning of February, we started to kind of jell,” said Randolph-Macon coach Nathan Davis, whose team lost in the 2010 final four in Salem. “I thought all along that once we figured it out and learned how to play, and play with each other and play with confidence, that we could beat anybody.”
The Yellow Jackets have won eight straight.
“We’ve become very stingy defensively and much more efficient offensively,” Davis said.
Virginia Wesleyan (23-7) will visit one of Amherst’s conference rivals, Williams (24-5). Virginia Wesleyan lost at Williams in the Sweet 16 in 2011.
Williams played in the final four in Salem in 2010 and 2011.
Virginia Wesleyan won the Division III crown in Salem in 2006 but lost to Amherst in the final a year later.
The Salem Civic Center will host the elite eight on March 22 and the final four on March 23.
Salem usually hosts the final four and the title game. But the title game will be held in Atlanta this year in conjunction with the Division I final four.
William Fleming graduate Jamelle Hagins of Delaware has been named the Colonial Athletic Association defensive player of the year.
Hagins also made the All-CAA second team, as well as the CAA’s all-tournament team. The senior forward averaged 11.6 points and 10.7 rebounds while blocking 80 shots this season.
Virginia’s Joe Harris, Virginia Tech’s Erick Green and VMI’s Stan Okoye were among 10 players named to the All-District III team by the United States Basketball Writers Association.
Duke’s Mason Plumlee was named the player of the year for the district, which includes Division I colleges in Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina and South Carolina.
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