With 7 seconds left, Middleton was fouled but missed the front end of the bonus situation, setting the stage for Sanders’ wild race against the clock while going coast to coast.
Liberty was only the second team to ever come into the tournament with 20 losses, matching Coppin State (16-20) in 2008. Amazingly, the Flames opened the season by losing their first eight games. Despite two players quitting the team during that discouraging period, others stuck it out and persevered.
Still, they were run out of their own gym in their final home game, 83-68 by VMI, to fall to 10-20 on the season.
But then came an incredible run through the Big South tournament including playing, and beating, both of the divisional leaders during the season. Their 87-76 upset of Charleston Southern in the conference title game on March 10 assured them of the Big South’s automatic spot in the tournament.
The Flames were making only their third trip to the NCAA tournament, having lost to No. 1 seed North Carolina 71-51 in 1994 and to top-seeded Saint Joseph’s in 2004.
A&T has a glittering, if now faded, legacy. The Aggies made it to the NCAA tournament seven years in a row 1982-88, but had fallen on hard times. They piled up 15 consecutive losing seasons until their late hot streak this year in the conference tournament pushed them above .500.
They were headed nowhere just 12 days earlier, after a loss at home to Norfolk State in their regular-season finale dropped them to 15-16.
But they roared through the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, winning each of their first two games by double-figure margins and then showing some poise down the stretch of the semifinal and final to win close games against Delaware State and Morgan State, respectively.
They shot 58 percent from the field (15 of 26) in taking a 40-33 lead at halftime. They fell behind 9-2 early while making only one of their first four shots from the field, but then found the range against a cloying, scrappy Liberty defense.
Down 22-20 midway through the opening half, Witter touched off a rapid-fire 10-0 run with a go-ahead 3 from the top of the key. Beckford hit a 10-foot jumper and then scored inside. Then, after Liberty’s third misfire in a row, Underwood — who was a perfect 3 for 3 from the field for eight points in the opening half — hit a 3 from the left wing while falling down to make it 30-22.
After Joel Vander Pol hit a free throw then rebounded his own miss, Speaks drove the right baseline for a basket.
But A&T countered on a Beckford reverse layup after recovering his own blocked shot. Middleton then made a pair of foul shots and added a perimeter jumper from the left wing to make it 36-25.
That 10-point spurt was part of a span where the Aggies scored on eight possessions in a row while turning a one-point deficit into the 11-point lead.