This was supposed to be the season that Liberty's reign in the Big South ended.
The women's basketball team had won the Big South tournament title for nine straight years and last season enjoyed a type of Cinderella story, advancing to the Sweet Sixteen with wins over Penn State and DePaul before losing to LSU.
But the Flames had something to prove to their naysayers who didn't expect much of anything from Liberty, which graduated five players after last year's super season.
Junior forward Jamie Feagin, a Lockport native who was a second team All-Western New York selection in her senior year at Wilson High School, is part of the reason the Flames are going back to the NCAA tournament.
Liberty won the Big South title, squeaking out a 53-50 win over High Point, to earn its 10th straight trip to the NCAA tournament. The Flames (25-5) are the 13th seed in the San Antonio region and will play a familiar opponent, No. 4 DePaul (25-6). The teams meet in the first round at 8 p.m. Saturday in Chicago's Allstate Arena. The Flames beat DePaul in the second round last year, 88-79, when they were a 13th seed and the Blue Devils a fifth seed.
"The low expectations of other people definitely drove us this year," Feagin said. "It drove us to put more effort into it and prove that we're more than just the seniors last year. We've always been a team that's played from the bench. We play 12 players on average and that was our focus this year."
Feagin saw action in 23 games for Liberty this year, averaging 15.7 minutes a game with 4.1 points and 3.1 rebounds.
"My role this year, and since I got here really, has been to go in and get rebounds and muscle some people around," the 5-foot-11 Feagin said. "If I score, that's an added bonus, but my role is to play good defense."
Overcoming losses seemed to be a theme for the Flames this season. Not only did they lose a talented senior class, anchored by Katie Feenstra who went on to play in the WNBA, they lost their leading scorer, Megan Frazee, to injury. Frazee played in just 14 games and averaged 18.5 points a game. No other player on the Liberty roster averages double figures in scoring. The Flames get it done defensively, holding teams to fewer than 60 points a game while leading the nation for the third straight year in rebounding (their rebounding margin is a plus-11.7).
"When Megan went down, nobody thought we'd win," Feagin said. "And we definitely struggled for a while. We lost some close games early in the season, but we take pride in our rebounding. Our goal is always to have the best rebounding team in the country and our defense is really good. A lot of teams don't like coming in to play us."
While the underdog role for Feagin was new this year, the winning has not been. This will be her third straight NCAA tournament, something she knew would be a possibility when she decided to attend Liberty. Still, in her reasons for picking the school founded by Jerry Falwell basketball fell third on the list.
"First and foremost, I chose Liberty because I love the Christian environment," Feagin said. "Following Christ is a focus of the university and of the team. The education part was important because they had my major, graphic design, which a lot of schools don't have. That was second and basketball was really the third part. It was a nice program and I felt good around the players and the coaches."