Liberty Clinches March Madness Bid with North Alabama Ineligible for Tournament

Tim Daniels@TimDanielsBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 6, 2021

Liberty's Chris Parker, right, tries to drive past Missouri's Mark Smith, center, and Mitchell Smith during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. Missouri won 69-60.(AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)
L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

Liberty has automatically qualified for the 2021 NCAA tournament before taking the floor in Sunday's Atlantic Sun Conference championship game because its opponent, North Alabama, is not yet eligible to take part in the Big Dance.

ESPN's Myron Medcalf noted the NCAA's four-year rule, which prohibits teams transitioning to Division I from taking part in the tournament for that time period, prevents the Lions from being part of the field, even if they upset the Flames to win the conference title.

Liberty Men's Basketball @LibertyMBB_

Can we punch our ticket early? πŸ”₯ With UNA defeating FGCU, we have clinched the ASUN auto bid to the NCAA Tournament! https://t.co/KoKRtUKnmv

North Alabama is a surprise finalist in the A-Sun. It entered the tourney as the No. 5 seed after a seven-game losing streak, which ended with a win over Lipscomb in its regular-season finale, dropped the squad down the conference standings.

The Lions knocked off North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast to reach the final, showcasing the form they'd displayed earlier in the season when they raced out to a 10-3 record before the losing skid.

FGCU coach Michael Fly was impressed with UNA in the semifinals.

"They were unbelievable," FlyΒ told reporters. "We played, man, zone, some junk ... threw everything at them ... they keep making shots. When you score 81 points and shoot 48 percent, you're supposed to win that game. We couldn't get stops. I don't think we played poorly. They were just better than us."

Meanwhile, Liberty has cruised to the final as the top seed with double-digit victories over Kennesaw State and Stetson. It won both regular-season meetings with North Alabama by the same score, 74-54.

The Flames are currently projected as a No. 14 seed for the NCAA tournament, perΒ Bracket Matrix. A win in the conference final could potentially move them to the 13 line.

Liberty was down 54-50 with 7:36 left in its semifinal against Stetson before exploding for 27 points down the stretch to pull away for a 77-64 win. Head coach Ritchie McKay was happy with how his team responded to the challenge from the Hatters.

"When you are the No. 1 seed, I think there is an added pressure to you getting the desired outcome, and it just doesn't happen like that in college basketball, especially when you are on a neutral floor," McKayΒ said. "The way we played from that point on I thought is a reflection of the kind of young men that are in our program."

Tip off in the Atlantic Sun championship game is set for Sunday at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN.