The Kennesaw State men’s basketball team is going to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.
Terrell Burden hit a free throw with 0.7 seconds remaining to lift the top-seeded Owls past Liberty 67-66 on Sunday in front of a school-record announced attendance of 3,805 to win the ASUN Tournament and earn their automatic invitation to the NCAA Tournament.
“I had all the confidence I needed,” said Burden, who was named tournament MVP. “... Everybody on the bench, everybody on the court, all players and coaches, they just bring confidence into me. And they told me they got my back no matter what. So I had no pressure at all.”
Supporters wearing gold and black were crammed into every possible space of the Convocation Center to witness Kennesaw State playing in its first conference title game in arguably the most important game in school history.
Despite having little experience with success in Division I basketball – the program went 1-28 in 2019-20 – the students and others turned the arena into a hostile environment Sunday.
“I’ve been here about 21 years, and what I’ve seen in the Convocation Center in the last month and a half I’ve never seen,” Kennesaw State President Dr. Kathy Schwaig said. “So when we get our students, when we get the community, we get this wonderful momentum. And now all the energy is focused. It’s just electric.”
After the victory, players ran around the court holding up their phones to record the moment. Parents and loved ones flooded the court to exchange hugs and handshakes. Confetti fell from ... somewhere. The nets were cut. It almost felt like old hat. Almost. The Owls will learn where they will go and who they will play on the March 12 NCAA selection show.
“People don’t understand, like even our guys right now, they don’t understand how special this is,” Kennesaw State coach Amir Abdur-Rahim said. “They won’t realize it until 5-10 years from now, when they come back.”
The victory was secured when Burden, a senior who went to Campbell High, was fouled driving to the basket by Liberty’s Isiah Warfield. Burden hit the first and missed the second. He finished with a team-high 19 points. Chris Youngblood followed with 16 points, Brandon Stroud 12 and Demond Robinson 10.
Kennesaw State built a five-point lead with 1:34 remaining.
Liberty’s Darius McGhee, the conference player of the year and one of the best shooters in NCAA history, hit an acrobatic layup to cut the Owls’ lead to three with 1:28 left.
Stroud was fouled by Ben Southerland. Stroud hit both free throws to give the Owls a five-point lead with 1:04 remaining.
Stroud fouled a driving McGhee on Liberty’s next possession. He hit both free throws to again cut Kennesaw State’s lead to three with 56.8 seconds remaining.
Burden turned over the ball on Kennesaw State’s next possession.
The Flames took advantage with a 3-pointer by Colin Porter from the left wing to tie the game at 66 with 25 seconds remaining.
A timeout was called. During the break, Abdur-Rahim said he told the players that no one said making history would be easy. Burden told his teammates to take a deep breath, which Abdur-Rahim said brought confidence back to the group.
“Two years ago, three years ago that (run) happens, we fold, we collapse,” Abdur-Rahim said. “But again, we have grown. They’ve grown individually. And so when we get in those situations like that again, we’re right at home when we’re uncomfortable.”
With the shot clock turned off, Burden held onto the ball until his final drive. He said the play was for him to try to drive to the basket.
”They were a tough out today and had a great crowd,” Liberty coach Ritchie McKay said. “A pretty good college basketball game. I’m disappointed that we didn’t advance to the NCAA Tournament. It’s something that our program has had the blessing of participating in, and it’s a lifelong memory when you make it there. ... Kennesaw deserved it.”
Kennesaw State hit 15 of 18 free throws, and its defense contributed to Liberty missing 18 of its 23 3-point attempts, including 0-for-11 by McGhee.
Making the NCAAs caps a remarkable turnaround led by Abdur-Rahim. He was the one who was at the helm for the one-win season in which the Owls finished 352nd out of 353 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.
Rahim, who played at Wheeler High, led the team to five wins the next season, 13 the next and 26, so far, this season.
Athletic director Milton Overton said the turnaround happened because of Rahim’s focus on details.
“Changing the culture, the culture that you expect to win,” Overton said. “... You’re going to do all of the small things right first.”
Read more coverage of KSU basketball
Amir Abdur-Rahim leading Kennesaw State’s surge into basketball relevance
Kennesaw State advances to championship game in ASUN Conference
Feb. 16: Kennesaw State takes first place with thrilling comeback win vs. Liberty
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