Sixty-four teams started the weekend in the NCAA Tournament with an eye on reaching the Final Four in Tampa, but only one has a player from the area: Liberty's Rachel Hammond, a junior guard from Clearwater. ¶ When Hammond chose Liberty, one of the draws was that the Flames had made the NCAA Tournament nine years in a row. She played in the tournament as a freshman, but didn't fully appreciate how much the postseason meant until last season, when the Flames lost in the Big South Conference semifinals.
"The big theme all season has been 'Earn It,' " said Hammond, averaging 5.4 points off the bench. "We knew we couldn't take playing in the tournament for granted, and it was an inspiration to us all season."
Liberty went 11-1 in conference play, but faced a new challenge in the last month as both starting forwards were lost to torn knee ligaments. The team has 6-foot-3 triplets on the roster — Megan, Molly and Moriah Frazee — and Hammond said that's emblematic of a close-knit family of players.
"It's been a very enjoyable season, especially compared to last year, when we didn't make it to NCAAs," said Hammond, the Times Suncoast Player of the Year in 2005. "This junior class, playing together for three years now, we've really jelled a lot more this season."
As a No. 12 seed, Liberty faces long odds to survive the opening weekend, but the Flames made the Sweet 16 in 2005 as a No. 13, so anything's possible. They open tonight against fifth seed Old Dominion.