Updated at: 03/10/2013 12:39 PM
By PETE IACOBELLI
(AP) CONWAY, S.C. - John Caleb Sanders had 27 points, Davon Marshall added 20 off six 3-pointers and Liberty defeated Charleston Southern 87-76 to win the Big South Conference tournament and reach the NCAA tournament with a 15-20 record.
The Flames opened the season 0-8 and reached 20 losses in their next-to-last regular season game. But Liberty got hot at the right time with a five-game winning streak, the last four at the conference tournament to gain their first NCAA trip since 2004. The Flames’s .429 winning percentage is the lowest for an NCAA tournament team since Oakland (Michigan) had a 12-18 record (.400) in 2005.
Marshall, the tournament’s MVP, and Sanders got things going in hurry over top-seeded Charleston Southern (19-12) with 3-pointers in the first 90 seconds _ and the Flames barely lost their outside touch. Marshall was 6 of 7 from beyond the arc and Liberty finished 9 of 18 on long-range baskets.
Saah Nimley had 18 points to lead the Buccaneers, who as the Big South’s regular-season champs will play in the NIT.
The Flames and their cheerleaders rushed the court when the game ended, the players piling on top of each other in celebration. And why not since Liberty was among the longest of longshots to be cutting down the nets in this one.
Liberty will try and pull off a Big South tournament double later Sunday when its top-seeded women’s team takes on Longwood for that NCAA berth. The Flames women have won 14 of the past 16 Big South tournament titles.
The Flames fell behind for a final time, 40-37, on Arlon Harper’s 3-pointer with 18:10 lead. That’s when Sanders’ jumper started a 17-7 run the next six minutes to take control. The charge was capped by Marshall’s long 3-pointer that put Liberty ahead 54-47. The lead eventually grew to 14 points as the Bucs could not match Liberty’s success from the field.
Charleston Southern was just 9 of 28 from behind the arch and Nimley, who made the all-Big South Conference team, was just 1 of 7 from three. The Bucs finished with five players in double figures.
Charleston Southern came in the tournament’s top seed and would have hosted this final under the Big South’s old home-court format. The league began a three-year deal to play at the recently opened, $35 million HTC Center on the campus of Big South member Coastal Carolina _ about 10 miles or so west of South Carolina’s Grand Strand, Myrtle Beach resort area.
The Buccaneers hadn’t been to a Big South final since 2005 and last won in 1997, also the last time they advanced to the NCAA tournament. They got to the championship by defeating Winthrop in the tournament opener and rallied from 5 points down at the half to oust VMI, 71-65.
Liberty was next to last in the Big South’s six-team North Division. That’s when the Flames found their game, topping host Coastal Carolina in the opening round before knocking off one of the tournament favorites in High Point, 61-60, in the quarterfinals. The Flames led throughout against High Point, taking a 19-point lead and holding on.
Liberty kept the run going on Saturday with a win over Gardner-Webb.
The Flames didn’t let up against Charleston Southern. Sanders, the team’s leading scorer this year at 13 points a game, nearly reached that mark with 12 points in the period while Marshall added 11.
Tavares Speaks hit a bucket as the halftime buzzer sounded that put the Flames ahead 35-34 heading into the break. Speaks ended the game with 18 points.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)