North Carolina A&T guard Jean Louisme, bottom, fights for the ball with Liberty forward J.R. Coronado during the second half of their first round NCAA tournament basketball game against Liberty in Dayton, Ohio, on March 19, 2013. (REUTERS/Matt Sullivan)
DAYTON, Ohio -- North Carolina A&T coach Cy Alexander said his team has been inconsistent on offense this season, but the Aggies defense has stepped up when needed.
In Tuesday night's opening game of the First Four against upstart Liberty at University of Dayton Arena, the Aggies needed every point they got to earn the school's first NCAA Tournament victory.
Jeremy Underwood scored 19 points and Bruce Beckford added 16, helping NC A&T end Liberty's improbable NCAA Tournament trip with a thrilling 73-72 victory. "Fortunately for us we made some shots tonight," said Alexander. "We normally don't."
The Aggies advance to face No. 1 overall seed Louisville on Thursday in the second round at 6:50 p.m. at Lexington's Rupp Arena. NC A&T forward Austin Witter, who finished with eight points Tuesday including two 3-pointers, said the Aggies aren't focusing on Louisville's top seed.
"That's just a statistic," Witter said. "We're going to go out and play our game. We're going to try to get the win."
Davon Marshall led Liberty with 22 points, and John Caleb Sanders added 21 for the Flames, who finished 15-21 and Big South Tournament champions.
"I think it was an exciting year," said Liberty coach Dale Layer. "I'm proud of my team. They could've quit several times tonight, but didn't."
Sanders almost extended Liberty's tenure in the tournament but came up short on his potential game-winning layup attempt at the buzzer.
"We've had late-game situations like that, and coach always says to take it to the rim," Sanders said. "It just didn't fall for me tonight."
Lamont Middleton added 14 points for North Carolina A&T (19-16) which had lost its previous nine NCAA Tournament games.
The teams made a combined 11 3-pointers in the first half. Liberty trailed by seven points at halftime, but a 7-2 run to begin the second half got the Flames back into the game.
Consecutive 3-pointers by Marshall cut NC A&T's lead to 52-51.
"This team has never won before," said Alexander. "Sometimes they take plays off. I have to remind them that every possession is important."
Both team got off to a blistering start to the second half, combining for 20 points in the first six minutes and 13 seconds.
Adrian Powell's 3-pointer completed a 9-0 run putting NC A&T ahead 61-51. But the pesky Flames wouldn't go away. Marshall's 3-pointer got them within three points with 1:32 left.
Powell missed the front end of a one-and-one, and Speaks scored to make the score 73-72. A near turnover by the Aggies resulted in a jump ball. NC A&T was awarded possession.
Middleton was fouled with seven seconds left and missed his first free throw. Sanders raced down court but missed a tough layup attempt.
"I was just hoping someone would cut him off," Alexander said. "I thought it was a smart play by Austin (Witter) not to foul him. That was my biggest fear."
Liberty didn't resemble a 20-loss team early in Tuesday's game. The Flames hit six of their first eight shots including a pair of 3-pointers. Speaks' layup put them ahead 14-8.
But the Aggies began the game 3 of 6 from 3-point range, including one from Underwood which tied the score 16-16.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Sanders put Liberty ahead 22-20. There were six lead changes and three ties in the first half until a 10-0 run by the Aggies capped by Underwood's second 3-pointer put them ahead by eight points.
NC A&T led by as many as 11 points in the first half. But consecutive 3-pointers by Marshall cut the Flames' deficit to 36-31. Beckford scored 12 points in the first half for the Aggies, who led 40-33 at halftime.
Notes: Liberty, which began the season with eight straight defeats, entered Tuesday's game with 20 losses, tying for most for in NCAA Tournament history with Coppin State (16-20) in 2008. ... The Flames are the 22nd team in NCAA Tournament history to have a losing record. ... North Carolina A&T made its 10th NCAA Tournament appearance, going 0-9 in its previous appearances. ... With two of his six 3-pointers on Tuesday, Liberty's Davon Marshall broke Seth Curry's single-season school record for made 3-pointers (102, 2009).