CONWAY, S.C. (AP) — Liberty coach Dale Layer doesn't care how many losses it took to get his players to the NCAA tournament.
The Flames became just the second 20-loss team to reach college basketball's marquee event, beating Charleston Southern 87-76 Sunday to win the Big South Conference title. Liberty opened the season with eight straight losses and had never won more than three in a row until this week. Yet, it joined Coppin State in 2008 as the only schools with 20 or more defeats in the field of 68.
The Flames' .429 winning percentage (15-20) is the lowest for an NCAA tournament team since Oakland (Michigan) had a 12-18 record (.400) in 2005.
"That's awesome," the fourth-year coach said of his team. "We've got the hats, right?"
Yes, you do, Coach.
The Flames finished their best stretch of basketball this year, winning their fifth in a row — and their fourth game since Tuesday — to take their first Big South tournament crown since 2004. John Caleb Sanders led the way with 27 points and tournament MVP Davon Marshall had 20 off six 3-pointers.
Marshall and Sanders got things going in a hurry over top-seeded Charleston Southern (19-12) with 3-pointers in the first 90 seconds — and the Flames barely lost their outside touch. Marshall was 6 of 7 from beyond the arc and Liberty finished 9 of 18 on long-range baskets.
The performance ended a hard-to-imagine run through the field where Liberty defeated home-standing Coastal Carolina and both Big South divisional winners in High Point and Charleston Southern. Sanders said the team began to believe when they topped the Chanticleers 78-61. "When you can beat Coastal by 20 on their home floor, we knew we could beat anybody in this tournament," he said.
That played out over the week at the HTC Center with the improbable run.
"We've played four of our best games in these four games of the tournament," Sanders said. "Talk about peaking at the exact right time."
Count on Liberty being near the bottom of the 68 NCAA seeds and a likely candidate for the tournament's first-four contests. Sanders says he and the Flames don't care which opponent they face.
"I feel like if we do us, we can give them a game," he said.
Saah Nimley had 18 points to lead the Buccaneers, who as the Big South's regular-season champs will play in the NIT.
The Flames and their cheerleaders rushed the court when the game ended, the players piling on top of each other in celebration. And why not, since Liberty was among the longest of longshots to be cutting down the nets in this one?
Liberty will try and pull off a Big South tournament double later Sunday when its top-seeded women's team takes on Longwood for that NCAA berth. The Flames women have won 14 of the past 16 Big South tournament titles.
The Flames fell behind for a final time, 40-37, on Arlon Harper's 3-pointer with 18:10 lead. That's when Sanders' jumper started a 17-7 run the next six minutes to take control. The charge was capped by Marshall's long 3-pointer that put Liberty ahead 54-47. The lead eventually grew to 14 points as the Bucs could not match Liberty's success from the field.
Charleston Southern was just 9 of 28 from behind the arc and Nimley, who made the all-Big South Conference team, was just 1 of 7 from three. The Bucs finished with five players in double figures.
Buccaneers coach Barclay Radebaugh said he told people after his team's 79-75 victory at Liberty on Jan. 26 that he wanted no part of what the Flames were building a second time.
"I think they're lying in wait," he said. "That's a scary team. They've got size, they've got depth. They're guards are good. They're strong."
Charleston Southern came in the tournament's top seed and would have hosted this final under the Big South's old home-court format. The league began a three-year deal to play at the recently opened, $35 million HTC Center on the campus of Big South member Coastal Carolina — about 10 miles or so west of South Carolina's Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach resort area.
The Buccaneers hadn't been to a Big South final since 2005 and last won in 1997, also the last time they advanced to the NCAA tournament. They got to the championship by defeating Winthrop in the tournament opener and rallied from 5 points down at the half to oust VMI, 71-65.
Charleston Southern had gone from nine victories in 2009 to back-to-back 19-win seasons the past two years. Both their leading scorers in Nimley and Harper are sophomores so Radebaugh believes the Bucs aren't done contending for Big South crowns. First things first, though.
"I'm really looking forward to the NIT," Radebaugh said. "It's not going to be a show up game for us."
Liberty was next to last in the Big South's six-team North Division. That's when the Flames found their game, topping host Coastal Carolina in the opening round before knocking off one of the tournament favorites in High Point, 61-60, in the quarterfinals. The Flames led throughout against High Point, taking a 19-point lead and holding on.
Liberty kept the run going on Saturday with a win over Gardner-Webb.
The Flames didn't let up against Charleston Southern. Sanders, the team's leading scorer this year at 13 points a game, nearly reached that mark with 12 points in the period while Marshall added 11.
Tavares Speaks hit a bucket as the halftime buzzer sounded that put the Flames ahead 35-34 heading into the break. Speaks ended the game with 18 points.
Layer previously led Colorado State into the NCAAs back in 2003. He said it was difficult to compare experiences and chooses to concentrate on his happy players, snipping away at basketball nets to take back to campus.
"It's life changing. I'm just looking at their faces and trying to soak in every moment," he said. "That's what you're doing this for."