1. The Big Least
The conference widely regarded as the nation’s most powerful was a late Villanova miracle away from losing all four teams that played Thursday. The Wildcats were the only team from the Big East to win on the tournament’s first day when they beat 15-seeded Robert Morris in overtime. Scottie Reynolds waited until the extra period before he hit his second shot of the game. He finished with 20 points, but 15 of them came from the foul line.
If anyone thought the Wildcats’ near loss was embarrassing, it was nothing compared to Georgetown’s blowout defeat at the hands of Ohio. Ohio finished the season with a 7-9 record in the Mid-American Conference, and had to win four straight games in the conference tournament to even make the big dance. The Bobcats shot 13-for-23 from behind the three-point line, and Georgetown couldn’t keep control of the ball. A week after knocking off Syracuse in the Big East Tournament, the Hoyas turned it over 18 times in a 97-83 loss.
Marquette blew a 15-point second half lead against Washington to lose by two points to the Huskies. Quincy Pondexter’s runner with 1.7 seconds left gave the Huskies the 80-78 win. Washington was hardly an underdog in this game. Marquette won most of its games by fewer than 10 points, and Washington is playing its best basketball of the season.
Notre Dame provided one of the best finishes of the day. Carleton Scott’s three-pointer as time wound down found its way halfway through the net before rattling out, and Luke Harangody’s put back made no difference as the Irish still lost to Old Dominion 50-49. The Irish were in relative control most of the game, but went ice cold from the field late. As they continued to miss from behind the arc possession after possession, it was clear the Irish were going to live and die by the three no matter how long they stayed in the tournament. ODU was able to score just enough to edge Harangody and company, sending them home packing after a strong finish to the season landed the Irish in the dance in the first place.
2. Murray State didn’t waste any time giving us this year’s “One Shining Moment”
With one Danero Thomas 15-footer, Murray State went from virtual unknown to America’s favorite Cinderella. Thomas’ shot at the buzzer lifted the Racers over Vanderbilt for the tournament’s first major upset, 66-65.
What’s not to love about the Racers? They play an uptempo style that makes for entertaining basketball, and just won their first tournament game in 22 years.
They led virtually the entire game over the fourth-seed Commodores, who lost for the second time in three years as a no. 4 in the first round; they also lost to Siena in 2007.
Butler handled UTEP in the second game of the pod, setting up a mid-major showdown in round two, at least on the surface. Both teams hail from small conferences, but Butler is a perennial top-level team, while the Racers are anything but. It will be another contrast of styles when those two teams meet, as Butler loves to rely on breaking its opponent down in the halfcourt and hitting power forward Matt Howard in the post.
The Racers, meanwhile, will force the issue by pushing the ball on every possession, looking to get fouled as much as possible and hopefully hit three’s in transition. It’s not out of the question to say the Racers could pull off a second upset. Definitely tune in for that game.
3. Jimmer Freddette steps up for BYU
Many of you know Freddette as the player who has stolen my heart with his sweet shooting stroke and remarkable shot selection. He strongly reminds me of Steve Nash, and he scored 37 points today in the Cougars’ double-overtime win over Florida.
The man I profoundly proclaimed to be this year’s Stephen Curry didn’t disappoint. After scoring only eight points in the first half, Fredette kept BYU in the game after the Gators stormed back from a double-digit deficit in the second half.
He got some much needed help from reserve guard Michael Loyd Jr., who scored 26 points. Loyd hit several runners in the lane and also pulled off some magical spin moves to get to the rim.
BYU has the makings of a bona fide Cinderella. With a player like Fredette and a plethora of deadly outside shooters, the Cougars could make a deep run in the dance.
And one! 4. March madness hits the ground running
The insanity got started early, when all three of the initial games came down to the wire within minutes of one another. Between two CBS channels and my laptop, I feverishly tried to watch Villanova come back against Robert Morris, BYU escape Florida, and ODU stun Notre Dame. Two of those three went into overtime, while the Notre Dame game was decided at the buzzer.
The optimist in me hoped that the early going was a sign of things to come, while the realist in me wasn’t so sure.
It was a good day to be an optimist. In the second wave of games, Murray State pulled off the unthinkable with the heart-pounding win over Vanderbilt.
Just a short while later, Northern Iowa and UNLV went down to the wire as well. Ali Farokhmanesh nailed a three-pointer longer than his last name to put the Panthers ahead 69-66 with four seconds to play. It held on to be the game-winner, and Northern Iowa helped in carrying on the chaos.
In the night session, it was crazier still. Ohio, which less than one percent of America picked to win on ESPN.com, dominated Georgetown, who beat the Big East regular season champions exactly a week ago.
Meanwhile, Washington came back from a 15-point deficit with 13 minutes to play to beat Marquette 80-78. The Huskies moved on after Quincy Pondexter nailed a runner on the left-hand side of the lane with just less than two seconds left.
The final wave of games may have been the best of the day.
Tennessee emerged from a deadlocked battle with San Diego State with some clutch free throw shooting in the final minute. The Volunteers escaped to move on and face Ohio in the second round. Once a team in turmoil with three players kicked off mid-season, the Vols now sit in prime position to make a Sweet Sixteen appearance.
As the final seconds were ticking down ever so slowly in that game, Texas and Wake Forest were also headed to a memorable finish. After Texas tied the game with a late three-pointer, the Horns took an eight point lead right off the bat in overtime. Wake came storming back, and after Gary Johnson missed two free throws with ten seconds left, Wake rebounded the ball down by only a point. Ishmael Smith dribbled coast to coast before he pulled up from 16 feet to bury the game-winner.
It was the third overtime game of the day. In 2009, only two games went to extra minutes throughout the entire tournament.
On the west coast, New Mexico was holding on for dear life against 14-seed Montana. I’ll admit, I nearly picked the Grizzlies to pull off the stunner. The Lobos made all but two free throws in the final 90 seconds, which proved to be vital in their 62-57 win.
At the end of the day, more double-digit seeds advanced today than in 20 years in the tournament’s opening session.
I’m no longer listening to that realist side of my conscience…I’m playing the fool and hoping for an equally thrilling Friday.