John Caleb Sanders is a junior guard for Liberty. The Flames (15-21), Big South Conference tournament champs, narrowly missed securing the first NCAA tournament victory in program history on Tuesday. Liberty lost 73-72 to North Carolina A&T in a first-round game in Dayton, falling short of a Round of 64 matchup with No. 1 seed Louisville. Sanders missed a potential game-winning layup just before the final buzzer sounded.
Going into the North Carolina A&T game, that whole day I probably didn’t sleep an hour and a half the night before just because I was so amped up. I wasn’t tired during the game either. I remember walking out there and seeing the fans. It wasn’t real full, but then you look midway through the second half and that place was packed.
It was the opportunity of a lifetime. I’ve never had that feeling for a basketball game ever. It almost didn’t feel real.
With seven seconds left when I got the ball down one point, I zoned out. It was the weirdest thing. I went right back to a little kid playing in the backyard like I used to do all the time. You imagine being in the NCAA tournament down one with six seconds left, dribble down and get the layup for the win. I zoned out for a little bit, and then I came back to reality and I had the ball in my hands and just tried to do the play I made up in my head.
I was either going to the rim or my only two other options that I thought about were finding Tavares Speaks or Davon Marshall. Tavares is clutch and had really been knocking them down. I figured they’d be face-guarding Davon because he’d already hit six threes. Whenever I got it, Coach has always said go right to the rim, so that’s what I did.
I was going right and Austin Witter took off that right block. I switched left and he got there quick enough and once I got to that left block, I’m only 6-foot so I tried to create as much contact as I could because if I would have faded he would have blocked it. I thought maybe I could get this thing up or get a foul.
When it didn’t go in, honestly, my first thought was Tavares. He’s the only senior we have, and he knows I did everything I could, but I just feel really sorry for him. I’m going to have another shot at this thing. I was upset that I didn’t finish for him.
I was sad for about a minute, but then I started thinking about the whole year and everything that we have done. All the emotions kind of hit you like a wave and you really don’t know what to do. I looked at my phone after we had a meeting, and someone texted me that as consolation prize you got a conference tournament championship and you got a ring.
Yeah, we wanted to win that NCAA tournament game and we wanted to succeed, but once you look back at the season, we did way more than anyone thought we ever would.
I thought the Charleston Southern game in the Big South championship was the biggest game of my life and the most important one that I played. But honestly that was nothing compared to the feelings and emotions of the NCAA game after you lost—even just the game itself.
At the end of the game, if I knew we were going to lose by one, I’d still play it a hundred times. I enjoyed that basketball game more than I’ve enjoyed any game in my life even though we lost.
The entire trip was great. When we arrived on the plane, we didn’t even get our own bags. We just walked 10 feet to get on the bus. We got a police escort to the gym and the same thing coming back. They treat you well.
We had fans at our practice. The hotel was nice and when we walked in, they had Liberty shirts and were cheering for us. It was the exact opposite of what was going on for us in February. It was definitely different.
One of the first people I noticed during our practice was Craig Sager. All I could think of was Kevin Garnett making fun of his suits during all his interviews. I had a 10-minute interview in a room with him and that was kind of weird talking to him.
Then after that I walked out and looked over and saw our media guy talking to a guy and thinking he looked really familiar. Then I realized it was Steve Kerr and went over there and said, “Hey, my name is...” and he stopped me and said “I know who you are, John Caleb, you had a great game against Charleston Southern.”
Steve Kerr knows who I am; that’s kind of weird. I know he’s just been doing his research about the game, but it was still cool.
Steve then called Davon over by name and talked to him, and that was pretty cool. I was never really into professional sports. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, so I never went to any NBA games and I had never met an NBA player.
When we got home from Dayton after our loss, the cheerleaders were out there and probably 100 or so people. Our vice president was there. I walked into class on Thursday and had several people start clapping and my teacher was talking to me about the game.
You walk around campus and you can’t get anywhere. People are coming up and talking to us, telling us, 'Good game!' It’s been great.
I didn’t want to watch the Louisville vs. North Carolina A&T game. I’m happy for those guys, but I didn’t want to watch. All the other games I’ve enjoyed it and this is my favorite time of the year.
I am realistic when you see these teams. I would have gone in optimistic if we had played Louisville but chances are we weren’t going to win that game. You’re going to lose at some point. So we get to come back and enjoy it.
This is one of my favorite times of the year. I’ve had three TVs set up and switching back and forth between all the games.
It is different this year to think that could have been us playing, because we haven’t really been close the other two years I’ve been here. In a couple weeks, we’ll get to work and try to get back.