DAYTON, Ohio — Saint Mary’s had a big concern coming into the NCAA tournament’s First Four. Its career scoring leader suddenly couldn’t hit a shot.
Matthew Dellavedova hit his first two from behind the arc Tuesday night, and the tournament got its first big night by a dominant guard. The Australian star emerged from his slump and scored 22 points for a 67-54 victory over Middle Tennessee in the tournament’s second game.
The 11th-seeded Gaels (28-6) make a quick trip to Auburn Hills, Mich., to play sixth-seeded Memphis on Thursday.
“Memphis — pretty much the same game plan,” coach Randy Bennett said.
In the opening game, substitute guard Jeremy Underwood tripled his average with 19 points and North Carolina A&T survived a last-second scare for a 73-72 win over Liberty, which ended the season with 21 losses.
The Aggies (20-16) will play overall No. 1 seed Louisville in Lexington, Ky., on Thursday night after getting their first NCAA tournament win after nine losses. Of course, a 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1.
“That’s just a statistic,” said Austin Witter, who made the clinching defensive play. “We’re still going to go out there and play hard, play our game, and no matter what, we’re going to try to get the win.”
Saint Mary’s, a No. 11 seed, is making back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances for the first time in its history. The Gaels were a 10th seed when they reached the round of 16 in 2010 before losing to Baylor. Not so good last year, when they dropped their opening game to Purdue 72-69 as a No. 7 seed.
With four starters back and Dellavedova handling the ball and making the biggest shots, the Gaels were too much for Middle Tennessee (28-6), which was making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 24 years.
Credit Dellavedova for making a difference, as he has all season. The point guard went 7 of 14 from the field, including 5 of 7 behind the arc, and had four assists and six rebounds.
“When he does that, he may be the best point guard in college basketball, when he shoots the ball like that,” Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said.
Coming into the game, Dellavedova had missed 17 of his last 18 shots from behind the arc. He made his first one on Tuesday, then another less than a minute later.
“There was no sigh of relief,” Dellavedova said. “Somebody had told me that I was 1 for 18 in my last three (games). That didn’t even enter my head. I’ve always got confidence the next one’s going down.”
The opening game came down to one final play that went North Carolina A&T’s way.
Liberty (15-21), only the second 20-loss team to make the NCAA tournament, had a chance when John Caleb Sanders drove the lane and tried to make a layup over Witter’s outstretched arm in the closing seconds. The ball went harmlessly off the backboard.
“I believe I got a little piece of it, but I’m not really sure,” Witter said. “I think I did just enough to get it off.”
Sanders was trying to draw a foul as much as make the frantic shot. Asked if there was contact on the play, he hesitated and then said, “I don’t know. It’s hard to tell when you’re in the midst of a game. They didn’t call it. So it wasn’t a foul.”
The Aggies’ late-season run helped them avoid the school’s 16th consecutive losing season.
“We told the players don’t worry about Louisville tonight,” first-year Aggies coach Cy Alexander said. “We’ll let them worry about Louisville when we get to Lexington tomorrow.”
Davon Marshall had 22 points and Sanders 21 for Liberty, which lost its first eight games of the season and was 10-20 on March 1 before winning its last five games, including the Big South tournament championship.
“I’ve been around college basketball since 1976, as a player and a coach, and I’ve never experienced a year like this,” coach Dale Layer said. “The depths of this year were the most in those 37 years. And when guys overcome what they have overcome as 18- to 20-year-old kids — wow, I’ll take that.”