Niagara Gazette — Davon Marshall realized his dream this winter, becoming the starting point guard for Liberty University after years of being told he wasn't good enough to play at the Division I level.
The Niagara Falls Ghost, as his teammates call him, never stopped dreaming. Liberty started the season 0-8 and entered the Big South tournament with 20 losses and and RPI rating around 300. They were the 10th-place team in a one-bid league.
And here they are now, on the doorstep of the Big Dance.
"It was a little surreal at first, but now it's kind of set in," Marshall said. "It's just a blessing."
Liberty will play North Carolina A&T tonight (6:40 p.m., truTV) in Dayton, Ohio as part of the first four play-in games. With a win, the Flames will earn a No. 16 seed and a Thursday matchup with the NCAA tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Louisville, in Lexington, Ky.
The website kenpom.com calculates Liberty's chances of winning the NCAA championship at 1 in 4 billion. Those might be shorter odds than the Flames had of making the postseason after their tumultuous start.
They started the year with two injured starters, and after losing the opener by 42 points, learned that their top player from the year before would remain out for the entire season. Two more rotation players quit the team. An assistant coach was placed on administrative leave after he plead guilty to attempted possession of a controlled substance.
All before Liberty earned its first win.
"Sometimes I would just think ahead to my senior year," Marshall said recently. "Maybe just put this year behind me. But every day coach was telling us not to give up."
Through all the tumult, Marshall emerged as the team's leader in minutes played (32 per game), second-leading scorer (13.4 ppg), second-leading assist man (2.8) and top shooter from 3-point range (43.3 percent) and the foul line (84.9 percent).
When he graduated from Niagara Falls in 2010, Marshall had no Division I scholarship offers and had to enroll at Monroe Community College in New Rochelle to try and prove he could play at that level. He averaged 15.6 points for the No. 3 ranked junior college in the country, but even the Liberty coaches had doubts about his size (5-foot-11) and playmaking ability.
"We knew he was a very good player and we knew he was a very good person," Flames coach Dale Layer said. "But he has exceeded our high expectations for him."
"It's mostly his spirit," Layer said. "He's been really willing to learn and grow and be coached and that's the best thing about him. He's taken on that challenge, sough help form coaches and implemented it daily and probably improved as much as anybody on the team."
In the Big South tournament, Marshall averaged 18 points, hitting 17 of 24 from 3-point range on his way to MVP honors. In the championship game, Marshall made 6 of 7 from beyond the arc. He is now one 3 shy of Liberty's single-season record, set by Seth Curry in his freshman season before transferring to Duke.