Saturday, March 17, 2012

A tournament that defies the numbers

Where does one even begin when recapping what went down on the basketball court on Friday? How can the second day of the 2011-2012 NCAA Championship Tournament possibly be explained? It was a day chalk full of "you had to see it to believe it" moments.

After a less-than-thrilling opening day, the hoops gods made up for a quiet Thursday by dropping some major basketball bombs on Friday, consisting of down-to-the-wire finishes and upsets of the rarest breed.

While we still have yet to see the ultimate upset, a 16-seed beating a 1-seed, we got the second best thing on Friday… TWICE!

The last time a #15 toppled a #2 was in 2001 when Hampton got the best of Iowa State in an absolute shocker, beating one of the tourney favorites 58-57. That was one of my favorite tournament games of all time, with perhaps the best celebration I've ever seen as one of the huge players picked up his tiny coach who pumped his fists and flailed his legs while being hoisted in the air.

Friday was somewhat of a throwback to that 2001 game as #15 Norfolk St. (representing the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference in which Hampton is also a member) gave #2 Missouri a serious run for their money, sending the Tigers home packing, super-duper early. The game was hard-fought by dueling point guards, Pendarvis Williams for Norfolk St. and Phil Pressey (and his amazing haircut) for Mizzou.

But the "darling" of the game, and perhaps the Tourney in general (should his team wear the glass slipper for a while longer and make it to the Sweet 16) was senior Kyle O'Quinn who stole the show with his play and personality alike. The big man was spectacular in the Spartans' first-ever trip to the Tourney, logging 26 points, 14 rebounds, two assists, two blocks and one steal while wearing his heart on his sleeve and a huge smile on his face.

Sure, he almost blew it with some missed free throws at the end of the game, but it was all good for Norfolk St. who kept their composure and did the little things to win the game. The statistics were evenly matched for the most part, with the Spartans edging out the Tigers in 3-point shooting, hitting an impressive 52 percent of shots from beyond the arc (Mizzou shot 44.8 percent from 3-point range) and also out-rebounding Mizzou 35-23.

Fun fact alert: A 15-seed has only beaten a 2-seed six times in NCAA Tourney history (since the tourney expanded to a field of 64). Three of those six teams were from historically black colleges and universities. I think that's interesting, but I digress…

On one hand, I was shocked by the outcome of the game. After all, we hadn't seen a #2 suffer an opening-round loss to a #1 in 11 years. But if it was going to happen, Missouri would be that team. Mizzou is a school I never trust in the tourney. Sure, I had them getting out of the first round in my bracket, but I had them out in the Sweet 16. If it was going to happen, it was going to happen to Missouri.

I sure as HELL didn't expect it would ALSO happen to the DOOKIES. Seriously Duke??? I mean, wow. The Norfolk St. victory lessened the shock value of #15 Lehigh's win over #2 Duke, but not by much. Last season, I was in the stands with my Dad watching my Arizona Wildcats beat Duke in the Sweet 16. Back in 2001, I watched Coach K, Shane Battier, Mike Dunleavy Jr., Jason Williams and Co. dismantle Arizona en route to an NCAA championship, and I never imagined we could beat them in a meaningful game, especially in the tournament. Watching Derrick Williams and Zona WHOOP Duke's behind in person last year, my eyes got a bit watery because for me, it felt like David beating Goliath. Duke is a team who I find hard to imagine losing.

A la the Honey Badger, Lehigh didn't care or "give a s^&%" about the Duke mystique as the Mountain Hawks beat the Blue Devils IN NORTH CAROLINA, less than 60 miles from Duke's campus. Like the Norfolk St. game just a couple of hours earlier, the favorite nearly crushed Cinderella's dreams on multiple occasions, but a few plays down the stretch kept the underdogs on top for good.

C.J. McCollum dropped 30 points on the Dukies leading the Blue Devils to a first-round demise for only the second time in 16 seasons. In a strange twist of fate, North Carolina fans who had watched the #1 Tar Heels handily beat #16 Vermont earlier in the day stuck around the arena just long enough to blast their Tobacco Road rivals. The UNC faithful threw their full support behind Lehigh, turning what should've felt like a home game for Duke into hostile, enemy territory which may have played a role in the outcome. Either way, UNC fans are cold-blooded for that, and very smart indeed as their second favorite team, Lehigh took Duke down 75-70.

Meanwhile Michigan State, Kansas, Georgetown and Florida beat their lower-seed opponents with relative ease. The same cannot be said for Cincinnati, Creighton and Florida State who squeaked past the first round and onto the weekend games. The #6 Bearcats surrendered a 19-point lead but thanks to guys with two of my favorite names in sports, Yancy & Cashmere, were able to gut out a slim victory over the #11 Texas Longhorns. #3 Florida State was on the verge of losing its ACC membership had the 'Noles lost to a feisty #14 St. Bonaventure team, but luckily for FSU, they hung on for a 66-63 win. Then we have #8 Creighton who won its first Tourney game in 10 years after overcoming an 11-point deficit and two heinous free-throw misses with under nine seconds to play, which was just enough to send #9 Alabama rolling back home to Tuscaloosa. It sure was tight though as Creighton escaped with a 58-57 win.

Temple, Memphis and San Diego State should all be embarrassed as they didn't come close to bringing their "A" game on Friday, each losing to a lower seed in ugly fashion. For the record, I had all three of them moving on to the weekend games, so, thanks for nothin guys!

#13 Ohio provided another shocker taking down the #4 Michigan Wolverines who are so desperately longing for hoops glory once again. Unfortunately the fine folks in Ann Arbor will have to wait another year. #10 Purdue managed to fend off #7 Saint Mary's, hanging on for a 72-69 win and boy, #10 Xavier and #7 Notre Dame played one heck of a nightcap.

Down by 10 in the second half, the Musketeers kicked it up a notch and with the help of a Zebra calling a lane violation on the Fighting Irish in the final seconds of the game, Xavier did just enough to pull off the upset.

Obviously, the two 15-seeds taking care of business against the 2-seeds was dramatic and the talk of the Tourney thus far. But this particular Friday was one of the best we've seen in recent years because it not only had history-making games like Norfolk St. and Lehigh, but there were plenty of other upsets, photo finishes and good, old fashioned blow-outs.

Friday was about as well-rounded as one day of competition could be as Day 2 of this year's Tourney officially brought the Madness we had all hoped to see this March.

No comments: