TEANECK, N.J. (AP) After enduring an 8-21 season that included a 15-game losing streak, Fairleigh Dickinson basketball coach Greg Herenda had a lot of faith in his team.
So much so that when the Knights got together for a summer workout in June, Herenda scrolled a simple, one-word message across the chalkboard in the locker room - ''Dayton.''
Herenda was referring to the NCAA Tournament's play-in round that is held annually in Dayton, Ohio, a site where the Northeast Conference champion is generally sent in the field of 68.
A team wins the NEC title, it heads to the Dayton Arena for the first round of March Madness as the tourney begins on Tuesday night. It's as simple as that.
So Herenda put it into his player's heads that he thought a trip to the NCAAs was actually possible.
''I just knew we could do it,'' Herenda said. ''I thought it would happen.''
It did on Tuesday when the Knights (18-14) beat top-seeded Wagner 87-79 to earn their first NCAA Tournament berth in more than a decade.
''He definitely put it on the board,'' said sophomore swingman Earl Potts, Jr. ''We were making our goals individually and he put it up there.''
Sophomore guard Stephan Jiggetts said, ''He just knew that we had to stick together to make it happen. We just had to believe.''
Potts first thought his coach had lost his mind. But then, he started to think about it.
''He didn't feel like it was out of reach,'' said Potts, this year's MVP of the NEC Tournament. ''I was thinking that if he put that up there, then he must really think we have a chance.''
But the returning players still remembered losing all those games. They snapped the slide on the final game of the season against Central Connecticut.
''It was so hard to go through,'' Jiggetts said. ''We would be in so many close games and at the end, we'd get a loss. It was hard to handle.''
''We just had to keep our heads up and come back at it again,'' Potts said. ''We had all the pieces. We just had to put those pieces all together.''
Herenda inherited a program that went 26-95 in the four years prior to his arrival and posted an 18-42 mark in his first two seasons since coming back to his native New Jersey from UMass-Lowell, where he spent seven years.
''We couldn't see the forest for the trees,'' Herenda said. ''But we had a real special group. I knew that when the talent level and the work ethic collided, we could be a special group. The kids all believed in themselves. They really like each other. They like being together. They had the qualities that a winning team has. We had only one place to go and that was up.''
Herenda was encouraged by his team's development over the summer.
''They had a great summer together,'' Herenda said. ''These guys just stayed together. They didn't blame anyone for what happened last year. I'm a real lucky coach for that. We were ready to rise up from the depths of college basketball.''
Still, the coaches in the NEC picked the Knights to finish ninth in the 12-team league.
''We didn't use that as a rallying cry,'' Herenda said. ''I knew they were good players. I knew they could play basketball. I honestly thought that getting picked ninth was fair considering what we did last year. We deserved to be picked there.''
This year, the Knights finished second in the regular season and earned their fifth trip to the NCAAs with a win on the road. They will find out where they are headed on Sunday night.
''Being a kid from North Bergen, I never thought I'd get a chance to be a part of it,'' Herenda said. ''I think it's the goal of every kid who ever played.
''I watched the NCAA tournament on television. I used to go to college basketball games in the Garden and see Indiana and Duke. I never thought I'd be a part of it. It's incredibly surreal.''
The players say they're ready.
''It's a huge difference from last year,'' Potts said. ''We're getting a lot of love and a lot of support. It feels good to have a lot of people behind you.''