Dayton, OH – Sharp shooting performances from Jeremy Underwood and Bruce Beckford put them in control, but the North Carolina A&T Aggies needed a stop on the last possession to preserve their first-ever NCAA Tournament victory, a 73-72 triumph over a Cinderella Liberty squad.
In the final seconds, North Carolina A&T's Austin Witter forced a driving John Caleb Sanders into a layup attempt he couldn't finish, vaulting the Aggies (20-16) to their fifth straight win and into a Midwest Region second-round matchup with top-seeded Louisville Thursday in Lexington, KY.
Underwood's team-leading 19 points on 6-of-6 from the field was a part of N.C. A&T's 51.9 percent shooting percentage for the game. Beckford followed with 16 points and shot 8-for-10 in the victory.
An improbable and incredible run through the Big South Tournament provided the Flames (15-21) with a trip to the Big Dance, but they saw their late-season five-game winning streak come to an end when Sanders' layup fell just short.
"We've had a lot of late-game situations similar to that, and Coach has always said take it to the rim," said Sanders. "So they took away my right hand, so I went left and tried to get to the basket, and it just didn't fall for me."
Sanders had 21 points with nine assists, while teammate Davon Marshall buried six 3-pointers for a game-high 22 points. Tavares Speaks added 17 for Liberty, which was just the second 20-loss team to ever reach the NCAA Tournament.
A near six-minute lull in the Flames' offense during the middle stages of the second half provided the Aggies an opportunity to open up a 9-0 run and take a 61-51 advantage on Adrian Powell's 3-pointer with 8:35 left to play.
Sanders brought Liberty out of its drought with a three-point play and came through with another almost 4 1/2 minutes later before canning a 3-pointer to bring the Flames within 71-67.
Although Underwood sank a pair of free throws to restore the Aggies' five- point edge, Powell and Lamont Middleton's misses from the stripe soon after allowed Liberty to stay within striking distance.
Marshall buried a triple prior to Powell's miss on the front end of a 1-and-1 to lead to a layup from Speaks and a one-point game with 11.1 seconds left, but after Middleton's miss from the line, Sanders was unable lift the Flames to victory on his layup attempt.
Liberty made its first four shots from the field to take a 9-2 lead and stayed in front for the first six minutes of play, but N.C. A&T started to make shots in bunches to surge ahead.
Trailing by three, the Aggies erased a three-point deficit by drilling their next six shots, which resulted in a 17-5 surge. Underwood scored eight and bookended the run with a pair of 3-pointers to create a 30-22 margin with 7:07 left in the half.
"My teammates believed in me, and they kept letting me go," said Underwood about creating his own offense. "My coach believed in me. I told him I wanted to run certain plays, and I felt like I could produce off of certain plays, and he had confidence in me. I just went out there and made it happen."
Marshall, though, buried two 3-pointers and scored the Flames' last eight points to help them reduce an 11-point deficit to 40-33 by the break.
A flurry of scoring captivated four minutes through the second half, as a combined nine shots went up and through the hoop. Marshall capped the frenzy with two straight from the beyond the arc, but Liberty then went without a bucket for an elongated period of time.
North Carolina A&T was 0-9 in NCAA Tournament play prior to Tuesday's victory. It is the Aggies' first appearance since 1995 ... The last 20-loss team before the Flames to reach the tournament was Coppin State in 2008 ... Liberty fell to 0-3 in NCAA Tournament appearances ... The Aggies were 8-for-18 from beyond the arc.