Published: Mar 16, 2013 03:00 PM
Modified: Mar 16, 2013 02:58 PM
Tavares Speaks didnt have an easy road to Division I college basketball, but his path to the sports biggest stage was even harder.
After graduating from Green Hope High School in 2008, where he had plenty of basketball success, Speaks played for Cape Fear Community College not exactly his dream school, but he wanted to keep his hoops dreams alive.
Now at Liberty University, Speaks is one of the biggest reasons his team qualified for this weeks NCAA mens basketball tournament.
Most people didnt expect the Liberty Flames to get there. They started the season with a grim 0-8 record but went on to win the Big South Conference tournament to earn an automatic spot in the Big Dance.
With a final 10-20 record, Liberty is only the second school since 2008 to lose 20 games and make it to the tournament.
I didnt even know where I was when we won the championship game. I was just going crazy, Speaks said. Its been a long journey, and I didnt think when I signed to Liberty that I would ever be able to play in the NCAA tournament, so it was just really cool.
That journey began in western Wake County. At Green Hope, Speaks helped lead the boys basketball team to the third round of the state playoffs in 2008. He also played for the Apex Force, a local AAU team.
After graduation, the 6-foot-4 guard headed to Cape Fear, where the hoops team won two regular-season conference championships and Tavares was named a First Team All-American his final year.
He still had few recruiting offers, but he landed at Liberty, in Lynchburg, Va.
This year, he helped make history at the school that gave him a chance. Liberty hasnt made it to the NCAA tournament since 2004.
Speaks had one of his best performances of the Big South Conference tournament in the title game against Charleston Southern, when he racked up 18 points, nine rebounds, four assists and two steals.
Years ago, Garry Edwards and Dean Payne, Speaks coaches with the Apex Force, realized that Speaks was a player who could blend in with any team.
It didnt matter where he ended up, he could adapt to any situation, Edwards said. Thats just his character. He is fun to be around, and everyone liked him.
By the time Liberty coach Dale Layer saw Speaks play, he knew he found a young man who could be a team leader. As a senior, Speaks is doing just that.
Hes grown as a human being and a player this season, Layer said. Hes progressively gotten better and better. Its just a combination of his hard work and maturity as a player and his ability to trust people
thats helped him grow on this team.
Liberty will play this week in the opening round of the tournament in Dayton, Ohio. Speaks will be able to share that accomplishment with friends like John Wall and Darius Johnson-Odom, local players who have made it to the tournament.
Those guys have been able to live in that limelight and play on that big stage, Speaks said. Those guys earned at-large bids and lived up to that hype. So for me to get to that stage, at this school, is just something that I never imagined would happen.
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