By Budd Bailey
In some ways, it’s the best sports morning of the year. It might be the most romantic, too.
The players, coaches and fans of 64 men’s college basketball teams woke up this morning with a chance to win the national championship. Everything that had happened in the previous four months had led up to this day, but now it meant nothing. National power that had all of its games on TV, or small school that only watched the best on TV – they were all even. All that mattered was an admission ticket to the Big Dance.
The problem, of course, is that the games then started to be played. One by one, teams started to be eliminated starting at noon on Thursday. By Sunday night, 48 of those dreams will be extinguished. It seems like there’s someone better who gets in the way at some stage – or at least a little luckier.
All of that is part of the attraction of the NCAA basketball tournament. It’s why those without a specific rooting interest came down to the KeyBank Center on Thursday to watch four games over the course of 12 hours.
Yes, it would have been nice to have some big-name schools and famous coaches stop in Buffalo. Still, there was some good basketball on the schedule – with the chance for something memorable. And we got four excellent games – one right after another.
Today might be the longest day of the sports year too, since games go from noon to midnight. You can get detailed reports elsewhere in any number of places. Here’s what struck me in my media seat behind the television commentators (“Guys, do you have to have the TV monitor there?”)
Providence 66, South Dakota State 57
Was it a foul?
That’s the question that will linger in the Midwest for quite a while.
The Jackrabbits had a 21-game winning streak coming into the contest, and you had to figure they wouldn’t go down quietly against a powerful team from the Big East. They proved their point in the first nine minutes, which was played at a stunning, breakneck pace that left everyone gasping with each exciting play by the two sides.
Providence eventually took control of the game in the later stages of the first half. Then it buildt the margin to 43-29 with about 16 minutes to go. But slowly and methodically, SD State crawled closer and closer. The lead was down to six with 7:12 left, and three with 2:36 left.
It was still three with under a minute left. Providence wound the clock down, and Jared Bynum launched a three-point attempt. Douglas Wilson, the Jackrabbits’ star player arrived a moment too late. The shot missed, Bynum wound up on the ground … and an official called a foul on Wilson.
So … was it a foul? It didn’t appear that there was contact on the shot, although the legs of the two players met well after the ball was away. A foul is in the eyes of the beholder, I guess. Bynum knocked down three free throws, and South Dakota State didn’t score for the rest of the game.
For a moment there, most of America outside of New England was a fan of the Jackrabbits. They certainly were no fluke.
Richmond 67, Iowa 63
With 34 seconds left, Nathan Cayo of Richmond put up a shot near the basket while an opponent essentially tried to tackle him … and it went in. Cayo – who had made a circus scoop just before that for a three-point play – walked over toward the Richmond cheering section and made a “it’s good and there’s a foul” officiating signal. You can imagine the reaction.
When he then sank a free throw, the Spiders were on their way to a nice upset. Richmond, the No. 12 seed, knocked off No. 5 Iowa in the second game of the afternoon double-header.
“It’s a tremendous win for Richmond; an incredible win for this group of guys,” coach Chris Mooney said.
This was a hard-fought game between two teams that know how to grind out a win. They both had won four games in four days to take conference titles. Richmond did it in the Atlantic 10, knowing that it’s only route to the tournament was to win it all at that level. Sure enough, neither side had more than a four-point lead in the first half.
Iowa jumped out to a 39-34 lead right at the start of the half, but the Spiders fought back. An 11-0 run put Richmond ahead, and the scoreboard tilted their way for the rest of the game. But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t difficult moments. Iowa even got the lead down to two with about five seconds left. Finally, though, Jacob Gilyard sank two free throws to give the Spiders a four-point lead. And that was it.
Richmond definitely has an old school approach to basketball. Not only is the defense tough, but they often run the old Princeton offense that is a bit of a throwback but fun to watch.
If you didn’t think the Spiders belonged here, think again.
New Mexico State 70, Connecticut 63
There must be an epic party in Las Cruces, New Mexico right now. It may not end until Saturday.
That’s the home of New Mexico State University. It’s had a very good basketball team, and been a frequent visitor in the past 12 years to the NCAA Tournament. But the Western Athletic Conference team never could quite get over the hump and win a game in the Big Dance.
Until Thursday night. The Aggies, a No. 12 seed, defeated No. 5 Connecticut, 70-63, in the first game of the night session.
The last time New Mexico State won an NCAA game officially was in 1970. It came so long ago that it was against a St. Bonaventure team that had Bob Lanier on its roster. Lanier was out with an injury; the loss came of the now-extinct consolation game of the Final Four. The Aggies did have some wins in the early 1990s, but they were vacated by an NCAA penalty.
“I’m sure others in the program will talk about what this means,” coach Chris Jans said. “But this is great for the fans. It’s something they deserve. We have such an unbelievable fanbase. But we’re not done. Hopefully, it will feel even better than it does now.”
It feels pretty good already to Teddy Allen, the team’s star guard and the player of the year in the WAC. Allen scored 37 points to tie the building record for points in a game; Juan Mendez of Niagara also reached that number. What’s more, he scored the Aggies’ final 15 points and 18 of their last 21.
“I knew in advance I had to be playing good,” he said. “I had to be ready. Coach told us, we don’t want to be soft today. We came out, and we weren’t soft.”
“He’s one of those guys who plays his best when the lights are brightest,” Jans said.
Arkansas 75, Vermont 71
No one would have complained if the final game of the night. No one would have asked for a refund for any part of the day. Yet the Basketball Gods decided to give us one more game of thrills.
Arkansas, the fourth seed, had all could handle with a pesky No. 13 Vermont team. In the end, they did just enough to come away with the victory.
“I thought our guys to a man stepped up big-time,” Arkansas coach Eric Musselman said.
The Razorbacks looked to be in control with a 36-29 lead early in the half. But the Catamounts ran off 10 straight points to take the lead. Everyone knew at that point that the game might go right down to the wire.
It did, even though Arkansas led the entire way in the final nine and a half minutes. But Vermont was close enough throughout to make it very uncomfortable. For a split second, it seemed that the underdogs had a chance to pull off the upset. With the Razorbacks leading, 73-71, with nine seconds left, a ball went out of bounds – and it was originally signaled to be Vermont ball. Arkansas called for a video review, and the officials reversed the call. It appeared to be the correct call.
Thus relieved, J.D. Notae sank two free throws to make it a four-point game and prevent a buzzer-beating shot – and another surprising outcome.
“We know there are going to be upsets. Watching those other games didn’t alter my mentality,” Musselman said.
Stanley Umade led Arkansas with 21 points; three others were in double figures. Ryan Davis and Ben Shungu had 20 each for Vermont.
Arkansas now takes on New Mexico State on Saturday in the second round.
(Follow Budd on Twitter @WDX2BB)