As Liberty University, perhaps one of the worst teams ever to qualify for the NCAA tournament, prepares for its first-round matchup, it may want to take some pointers from a previous unheralded team that nearly pulled off one of the greatest upsets in NCAA tournament history.
The fact that a No. 16 seed has never won an NCAA tournament game is well known, but few squads have come closer than Fairfield in 1997.
The Stags finished their regular season with a record of 11-18, but after a magical run in the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, they earned an automatic invitation to the NCAA tournament. Of all the teams to appear in the NCAA tournament, only one squad, the 1961 George Washington Colonials, had a lower winning percentage than Fairfield.
Fairfield fought through injuries and eligibility questions surrounding promising freshman Darren Phillip to land a matchup with the top-seeded Tar Heels in Winston-Salem, N.C. Despite the long odds, Fairfield coach Paul Cormier saw a glimmer of hope for his team.
"The kids are realistic and know we have to play a perfect game to win," Cormier told the New York Times before the game. "They know we'll have to play even better than we did in the M.A.A.C. to beat Carolina. If we play extremely well and North Carolina plays well, we're going to lose. We have to be perfect."
In 1997 North Carolina started two players who would go on to be NBA mainstays, Vince Carter and Antawn Jamison. Fairfield did not have a starter taller than 6-foot-6. As if that wasn't overwhelming enough, the Tar Heels were playing for history. North Carolina's legendary coach, Dean Smith, was looking to win his 876th game, which would tie him with Kentucky's Adolph Rupp as the winningest coach in NCAA history. Fairfield wasn't supposed to have a chance.
And then the game started.
The Stags got off to a smoking hot start, shooting 56 percent from the field in the first half and nailing six of their 11 three-point attempts. The heavily pro-North Carolina crowd was stunned to see their team go into the locker rooms trailing by seven points.
Even after halftime, the Stags hung with the Tar Heels as North Carolina made its inevitable run. The game was tied with 7:28 left before the Tar Heels took the lead for good. Fairfield simply couldn't hang with North Carolina and its 7-foot-3 center Serge Zwikker.
Zwikker carried his squad down the stretch, scoring 16 points in the second half and finishing with a game-high 13 rebounds. The Tar Heels won 82-74.
Even after achieving an in incredible coaching milestone, Smith couldn't help but complement Fairfield after the game.
"Isn't it great about athletics that a team can get so focused that they could turn it up a notch and play as well as they did," Smith said.
This year Liberty will likely be a double-digit underdog regardless of who it faces in the tournament. And while it's extremely unlikely that the Flames hang with, much less beat, their opponent, stranger things have happened.
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