When Radford hired Mike Jones as its new basketball coach seven years ago, its program was in shambles.
Not only were the Highlanders coming off a 24-loss season in which they recorded only two Division I wins, the previous staff was also in the NCAA’s crosshairs for providing impermissible benefits to recruits and then misleading investigators about it.
Overcoming crippling NCAA sanctions in the midst of a rebuild wasn’t easy, but Jones now has Radford accomplishing goals the school has never achieved before. The Highlanders notched their first NCAA tournament win in program history on Tuesday night, defeating fellow No. 16 seed LIU Brooklyn 71-61 to earn a crack at top-seeded Villanova on Thursday evening.
Stars Ed Polite Jr. and Carlik Jones combined for 25 points, 23 rebounds and 11 assists, but the two heroes of Tuesday’s First Four game for Radford were a pair of reserves who average less than seven points apiece. Forward Devonnte Holland and guard Travis Fields each scored huge buckets to help the Highlanders pull away after LIU Brooklyn had sliced its deficit to two with less than five minutes to play.
Fields sank a step-back 3-pointer to extend the lead to five. Holland followed with a jumper and a put-back. By then the lead was nine with less than two minutes to go, and Radford could begin to celebrate making school history.
Radford (23-14) advanced to the NCAA tournament in memorable fashion nine days ago when a broken play somehow produced a beautiful finish. Jones’ thunderbolt of a pull-up 3-pointer as time expired gave the Highlanders a 55-52 victory over Liberty in the Big South title game and sent them to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009.
There’s nothing about Radford’s resume that suggests it has a prayer of even making it close against Villanova. 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.
Regardless, Radford has come a long ways since it lost 26 games in Jones’ debut season and played two scholarships short the following two years.
The Highlanders have an NCAA tournament win and a date with a No. 1 seed. Why not dream big?
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