I. Renko is an RTC correspondent. He filed this report from Dayton after Tuesday’s play-in game between North Carolina A&T and Liberty. Follow him on Twitter @IRenkoHoops.
Three Key Takeaways:
- The Madness Is Here — A thrilling finish to this game made for a thrilling start to the NCAA Tournament. Down 73-67 with under two minutes to play, Liberty scored five straight points, and NC A&T missed two front ends to give the Flames a chance at a last second winner. But point guard John Caleb Sanders’ drive to the basket resulted in a wild, off-target shot attempt that clinched the win — just barely — for the Aggies. March Madness has arrived.
- NC A&T’s Supporting Cast Found The Team’s Offense — Coming into the game, NC A&T was shooting 39.9 percent from the field and 29.9 percent from three-point range. Their adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy, ranked them 317th in the nation. But on the strength of some unlikely contributions, the Aggies managed to shoot 52 percent from the field and 44 percent from three-point range. Adrian Powell, Lamont Middleton, and Jean Louisme led the Aggies in field goal attempts on the year, but it was a different threesome that led the attack tonight. Backup guard Jeremy Underwood (19 points), center Bruce Beckford (16 points), and forward Austin Witter (eight points) combined to shoot 17-of-22 from the field, including 4-of-6 from three-point range.
- Liberty Handled the Pressure and Hit Their Threes, But It Wasn’t Enough — Coming into the game, the Flames had two main offensive tasks: take care of the ball against the Aggies’ aggressive pressure, and take advantage of the Aggies’ ball-oriented defense to bombard them from the three-point line. Well, they managed both. While they were pressed into some inopportune turnovers, they coughed it up a total of 10 times, for a strong turnover rate of less than 16 percent. And they shot 10-of-23 from three-point range. But it wasn’t enough. In the end, the Flames’ 303rd ranked defense was their undoing.
Star of the Game: Junior guard Jeremy Underwood ranks seventh on the Aggies in field goal attempts, but he took center stage tonight. Coming off the bench to replace an ineffective Jean Louisme, Underwood scored 19 points on a perfect 6-of-6 field goal shooting and 5-of-6 from the free throw line. After giving the Aggies a big boost with two big first-half threes, his effective dribble penetration and composure in the second half were the key to the Aggies’ offense. Underwood also had what may have been the game’s most impressive and most important play. With under 5:30 to play in the second half, and Liberty within four points, Underwood converted a conventional three-point play on an off-balance jump shot to push the Aggies’ lead to 68-61.