Liberty faces Carolina on wing and a prayer

March 18, 1994|By Gary Lambrecht | Gary Lambrecht,Sun Staff Writer

LANDOVER -- As they awaited their initiation into the NCAA tournament yesterday, Liberty pondered its monumental task -- beating top-ranked, top-seeded, defending champion North Carolina. And, while acknowledging that the Tar Heels can negate each of the Flames' strengths, Liberty downplayed the prospect of a blowout by hinting at a different game plan.

"Our whole focus is to build a platform where we can share the Lord's word," said Matt Hildebrand, Liberty's senior guard and leading scorer. "We want to represent Liberty, but we also want to represent Jesus Christ."

Jeff Meyer, Liberty's 13-year coach, took Hildebrand's thought a step further.

"When you're attacking a giant, you not only need the skills. You'd better be plugged into the ultimate source," Meyer said. "We're going to represent who we are with class and excellence. We're going to draw strength and confidence from our relationship with the Lord."

Dr. Jerry Falwell, the founder and chancellor of Liberty, said: "This is a great platform for us to share the Gospel of Christ. We're here to represent the Lord. North Carolina has a lot of fine Christians on their team, too. We'll probably nonplus each other praying about who's going to win."

In today's opening-round East Regional game, the Flames may need some divine intervention. Since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, no top seed has lost a first-round game.

The contrasts between No. 1 and 16 seeds are typically striking. The Tar Heels (27-6) are making their record 20th straight appearance in the national tournament. They are fresh off their 13th ACC title. They have played in the Final Four 11 times, and they have the weapons to repeat as national champions.

This is all new to the Flame (18-11). Consider that when Liberty opened its doors as a Baptist institution in Lynchburg, Va., 23 years ago, coach Dean Smith and the Tar Heels already had been to the Final Four three times.

When Liberty takes the floor this afternoon at USAir Arena, the Flames will be celebrating a pinnacle in their program. The Flames have been in Division I only since 1988, and three years ago they suffered through a 5-23 season.

Liberty has erased that disaster with three consecutive winning years, but the Flames really came alive this season, when they completed a late-season surge by winning their first Big South tournament and qualifying automatically for the NCAAs.

Liberty knocked off top-seeded Towson State in the Big South semifinals to get here. And the Flames, having won eight of their past nine, are peaking when it counts. Still, Liberty never has beaten a team close to this caliber.

"Carolina is big, strong, quick, skilled and experienced. They have very, very few weaknesses," Meyer said. "As a coach, you always dream about playing the perfect game. My mind is on trying to play to our strengths and trying to neutralize the strengths of North Carolina."

To have any chance, the Flames must find a way to compete inside and must deal with North Carolina's pressing, trapping defense.

That means Hildebrand and forward Peter Aluma must come up big. Hildebrand is the Flames' floor leader, top ball-handler and a 93 percent foul shooter, among the best in the nation. On a team that has trouble against the press, he is the key.

Aluma is a 6-foot-10, 21-year-old freshman from Nigeria who came off the bench to give Liberty a 1-2 punch in the low post with Jason Dixon. He finished the regular season on a high note, then stormed the Big South tournament with 50 points and 22 rebounds in three games to win tournament MVP.

"We're not coming to lay down and give North Carolina a little workout," Hildebrand said. "We're going to go out and play the best we can. If that means we lose by 50, I'll still be happy with our effort."

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