It was déjà vu … with a different ending.
“As soon as I started coming down that big ramp to the court it all came back to me vividly,” said North Carolina A&T assistant coach Darren Corbett. “I remembered the first time I was here in Dayton for an NCAA tournament game. It was 1984, my dad was the head coach and I was 7 or 8.
“We led Morehead State the whole game and then one of their guys comes down and hits a jumper at the buzzer. They beat us 70-69 and I remember being really sad … I was crying.”
Tuesday night the memory of that play-in game heartbreaker quickly gave way to a smile in the postgame dressing room: “Who woulda’ thought almost 30 years later it comes down to a final shot again?”
Only this time Liberty’s John Caleb Sanders — who already had 21 points — came driving down the lane for a layup to win the First Four game at the buzzer and A&T’s 6-foot-8 Austin Witter got an arm up and partially deflected the shot. The ball fell into an Aggie teammate’s hands and the longest losing streak in NCAA tournament history was over.
North Carolina A&T had won, 73-72.
The Aggies, who at 20-16 are having their first winning season in 15 years, had lost all nine of their previous NCAA tournament games.
Now they play No. 1 seed Louisville on Thursday in Lexington, but that daunting task seems no bigger than the one they handled in front of 12,027 at UD Arena.
“You don’t realize what this means to the school and all those guys from A&T who played in the tournament before them,” Corbett said. “They made history tonight.”
And no one was more instrumental in that quest than backup guard Jeremy Underwood, who scored 19 points, making all six of his field goal attempts — two of them 3-pointers — and five of six free throws.
“I’m a guy who feeds off the crowd and when I saw all those people tonight, I knew it was going to be a good night,” Underwood said. “And then I saw my mother sitting right behind the scorer’s table with my girlfriend. I’m a momma’s boy. I love my mother. She came all the way from Washington D.C., so I had to make her proud.”
He made a lot of folks proud, said Corbett , whose legendary father, 70-year-old Don Corbett, coached the Aggies for 14 years, took them to seven NCAA tournaments and has the school’s basketball arena named after him.
“Soon as the game ended I called my dad down in Greensboro,” Corbett said. “This really made him feel good.”
Same for Underwood: “After the game my mom blew me kisses and I blew ‘em back. … I’ll remember this night forever. It’ll always be special in my heart.”
That’s what happens when déjà vu gets a different ending.