Liberty beat Charleston Southern on Sunday to win the Big South mens basketball tournament, and to watch the celebration was to smile.
The Flames, who have lost 20 games this season, were in the NCAA basketball tournament. Players piled on each other and pounded the floor and jumped and even appeared to dance.
Did you dance with them, coach?
Were not supposed to dance at Liberty, says Dale Layer, coach of the Flames.
Liberty, which is a 3½-hour drive from Charlotte in Lynchburg, Va., is a Christian school.
You might remember Layer from his fine work in Charlotte. He started the basketball program at Queens. In nine seasons his teams won 167 games and lost 87. The last three seasons his Royals went 25-6, 22-7 and 24-6.
The Charlotte Hornets used to run a basketball camp at the same time Layer ran his. One of the Hornets' executives sent his son to Layers camp. His son would get better coaching, the executive said.
From Queens, Layer went to Colorado State as an assistant and, for seven seasons, head coach. After Colorado State dismissed him he became an assistant at Liberty for a season, an assistant at Marquette for a season and, since 2009, head coach at Liberty.
This season began terribly. Layer lost his best player, Antawn Burris, to injury; Burris sat out as a medical redshirt. One player missed the first nine games, another player the first six. Two players left the team in December.
The Flames lost their first eight games.
The depths of coaching, says Layer, 54.
But they began to adjust. They learned what they could do and what they couldnt. They quietly improved.
In January I thought we were a month behind, says Layer. In February, I thought we were two weeks behind.
In March, on Coastal Carolinas court in Conway, S.C., they caught up.
In the first round, against 9-7 Coastal Carolina on Coastal Carolina's court, the Flames, 6-10 in the conference, won by 17.
In the second round the Flames beat 12-4 High Point, the North division champ, 61-60.
In the third round the Flames beat Gardner-Webb, which had won eight straight, 65-62.
In the championship, against South Division champ Charleston Southern, the Flames won 87-76.
Its an unbelievable story, says Layer. Who loses their first eight games and makes the tournament? If were 20-10, youre probably not calling.
The Liberty Flames are the inspiration for Wake Forest, the Charlotte 49ers and every other school who can atone for a sad season by winning the conference tournament.
Everybody gets a breath of fresh air, says Layer. Everybody gets a clean start. Everybody gets a second chance.
Underdogs make March basketball one of the great spectacles in sport.
Whether you play basketball, coach, write, work, dont you need that opportunity to turn it around? asks Layer. Dont you need that second chance to keep plugging away? Because that is the story.
Only one other team in the history of the NCAA tournament, Coppin State, had lost as many as 20 games.
Let's review. The Flames lose 20 games. When they lose their 21st their season ends. So four straight times they have to upset their opponent. Four straight times they succeed.
Everybody asks what you think about after the fourth win, says Layer. I just observe. I let guys soak in the moment. Watch them answer questions on the podium. Cut nets. Hoist a trophy. Smile. Hug.
You cant buy that. You cant fabricate that. Thats why you coach.
Thats why we watch. Of course we'll cheer for our team in the NCAA tournament.
But when an underdog beats somebody elses team? You'll hear us in Lynchburg.
Isnt this really what March is for? Layer asks.
Sorensen: 704-358-5119; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @tomsorensen
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