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Plenty of firsts as NCAA tournament kicks off with First Four


DAYTON -- The goal of Liberty University is to become the Notre Dame of evangelical Christianity. "Champions For Christ'' is how the Flames think of themselves. If their basketball team is any indication, suffering and triumph will have equal time in the pulpit.

What else can you make of a group that lost its first eight games, 10 of its first 11, and still qualified to play in the First Four of the NCAA tournament?

The Flames didn't burn brightly. For more than a month, they didn't burn at all. "My best player never played a minute,'' coach Dale Layer recounted Monday. "Had two starters out, one for nine games, one for six. Had two players in the rotation quit in December. Other than that, things were going really well.''

At that point Layer, a reasonable and religious man, gathered his collection of beaten-down Davids and offered a thought:

"There's going to be a story of March, of somebody,'' he told his players. "The feel-good story. Just think if it was us. Why couldn't it be us?''

The players embraced the concept. At least they didn't find it completely crazy. As junior center Joel Vander Pol put it, "Greg Gumbel is doing a story on someone special every year that was 0-10 or something like that.''

The Flames got to 11-20, then won four straight games last week in the Big South tournament. And here they are, the second 20-loss team ever to make the NCAA field. Mix in the religious metaphor of your choice.

Layer said, "God has worked the work in these guys' lives and in my life. The odds were stacked against us. I don't think you can marginalize what we did. If anybody (does), I would say, what have you overcome?''

Well ...

The Saint Mary's Gaels are in Dayton, too. They won 27 times. They lost only three games in the last nine weeks, all to No. 1 Gonzaga, and still found themselves flying across the country before dawn on Monday.

They wanted to leave Moraga, Calif., Sunday night, a few hours after the Selection Show. A plane was waiting, coach Randy Bennett was told. The plane was, in fact, ready to go. It was only missing a crew. "Which is kind of important,'' Bennett said Monday.

The Gaels departed Monday at 6:15 a.m. instead, arriving in Dayton at 4:30 in the afternoon. Just enough time to practice, talk with the media and find a hotel pillow. Congrats on your 27-5 season. "We're excited to be in the tournament,'' said Bennett, who seemed to mean it.

A first-date charm surrounds the First Four, for some schools. North Carolina A&T plays Liberty Tuesday. The Aggies hadn't made the tournament in 18 years. Their sendoff from their Greensboro, N.C., campus had all the pomp of a Homecoming parade in a one-light town.

"Everybody's been showing us love,'' said Adrian Powell, the team's best player. "The cameras, the pictures, just a great experience. I've been dreaming this for a long time.''

Dreaming is what Tuesday and Wednesday are for. The (Not Exactly Elite) eight are kings for a day, in a Tin Cup kind of way. Directional colleges, hyphen universities, places you might not have heard of, until you picked up your bracket on Monday. It's their dance, between now and Thursday. It's their time to ask, Why not?

None of Middle Tennessee State's players were born the last time the Blue Raiders were in the tournament, in 1989. Their coach, Kermit Davis, has won 345 games. He mentored Randy Bennett at Idaho in the late 1980s, when both were on Tim Floyd's staff. Davis recalls seeing Bennett in a pair of pants that Bennett had "hemmed'' with a few staples. "He's come a long way,'' Davis said Monday. "I'm sure his suits are more expensive than mine.''

This isn't the event for silk suiters, though. Ask Dale Layer. He wants the Flames to soar with the angels. And they might. On Monday, they couldn't get off the runway in Virginia.

"It was some kind of a skid light,'' he said.

Skid light?

"I don't really know," Layer said. "They had to bring in another plane.'' The Flames were supposed to leave at 7:00 a.m. Monday. They didn't take off until 2:30 p.m. The team cooled its excitement in "a double-wide trailer-type terminal,'' Layer said.

The ways of the Lord aren't always clear.

"God blessed our work this year,'' the coach declared, if not their flight Monday. As for his players' notable comeback from its humble 0-8 beginning, Layer said, "This will be a story that will resonate in their hearts for the rest of their lives.''

A few miles away the Saint Mary's Gaels, odyssey completed, were just getting to their Dayton hotel. Bagpipers greeted their arrival.