CONWAY — The official Big South Conference tournament theme is “Myrtle Beach Madness.” Perhaps you can relate from your own athletic adventures on the Grand Strand.
You know, sometimes that three-foot putt on the back nine at Goofy Pirate Mini-Golf turns into a nightmare of wavy carpet.
March Madness (and sadness) was on full display Sunday at the HTC Center as Liberty stunned top-seeded Charleston Southern, 87-76, in the Big South championship game.
The Flames, 15-20 after a 1-11 start, won four games over six days in cozy Conway to claim the league's automatic NCAA tournament bid.
The Bucs still have a precious NIT prize earned as Big South regular season champs.
“It's not going to be a show-up game for us,” CSU head coach Barclay Radebaugh vowed.
But this was a grand opportunity on the Grand Strand. You never want to be the answer to the “How did a 20-loss team crash the NCAA tournament?” question.
Liberty came in with a mediocre resume, and tired. If the Big South seeded its tournament by overall standings and not division standings, Liberty would have been No. 10.
Saw it coming
Radebaugh saw trouble coming almost two months away.
“I wouldn't want to play them again,” he said after the Bucs' 79-75 victory in Lynchburg on Jan. 26.
Reasons: The beat-up Flames were likely to get injured players such as center Joel Vander Pol back, and head coach Dale Layer, formerly of Colorado State, has been around the block.
“I thought they were laying in wait,” Radebaugh said. “That's a scary team. They have size, they have length, they have some pretty decent depth, their guards are good, they're strong.”
And you gave up on Liberty basketball after Seth Curry transferred to Duke.
A blown NCAA tournament shot always hurts for the seniors, in this case guard Jeremy Sexton and forward Mathiang Muo.
“We had a great shot and a great year,” sophomore guard Saah Nimley said. “We wanted to finish it off in style with a Big South championship, but we couldn't do that this year for them.”
It's just those two seniors on a young roster built around Nimley and fellow sophomore guard Arlon Harper.
“We're going to the NIT, which is a great, competitive tournament,” Harper said. “We'll take a couple days to get over this then we'll get ready for the NIT.”
'So proud of them'
Few college basketball programs can match Radebaugh's year-to-year improvement over the last four seasons:
2009: Nine wins
2013: 19, with a Big South regular season title and the accompanying NIT bid.
“We're a really young team and we have a lot of basketball left in us,” Radebaugh said. “Not only this year but in years to come. We have almost everybody back. And the best thing about it is, it's a classy group of kids. We haven't had the first problem this year; not the very first problem. I'm so proud of them.”
A lot of people come to the Grand Strand and lose, at miniature golf or tournament basketball. Not many have an NIT fallback.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.