Wow, what a day. I am still trying to catch my breath from the first day of the first round of the NCAA tournament. Slightly over 12 consecutive hours of NCAA basketball brought us buzzer beaters, upsets, and upset scares that will define this year’s NCAA tournament.
Let’s start with the first slate of games, which tipped from 12:20-12:30. Florida played BYU in a double overtime thriller that included end of period stops by BYU that kept the Cougars in the game and allowed the team to eventually win the game in double overtime. Jimmer Fredette led the Cougars and refused to let them lose after Florida mounted a late comeback to force overtime.
Also, Villanova played 15th seeded Robert Morris in the early slate. Robert Morris came out with intensity and enthusiasm, and Villanova came out flat. Turnovers, unnecessary fouls, and missed open shots highlighted an extremely frustrating day, to say the least, for Villanova players and fans. The Cats were down 8 points with just under 4 minutes remaining when Scottie Reynolds singlehandedly put the team on his back. He missed only 1 free throw on the day and attacked the rim with both intelligence and agression, which allowed him to draw many fouls and put him on the line. Last minute attempts by both Nova and RMU went begging, and the game went to overtime. Nova came out much more aggressively in the overtime period and took a convincing lead early in the period, but Robert Morris cut the Nova lead to 3 before Reggie Redding hit 1 of 2 free throws (after a very stupid decision to waste 2 extra seconds by holding the ball and getting fouled instead of scoring an uncontested layup). Then RMU hit a 3 to cut the lead to 1, Nova hit 2 free throws, and Robert Morris missed a last second 3 pointer off the back iron which would have tied the game. Nova escaped and won a thriller, 73-70.
In the 3rd game of the afternoon slate, Notre Dame played Old Dominion, winner of the CAA. The Irish and Monarchs played a slow, burn style offense, as Notre Dame seemed to dictate the pace of the game. However, Old Dominion was content to hang with the Irish, stay in the game (as usually occurs when a team plays a burn style offense), and then try to win at the end. This is exactly what the Monarchs did. Old Dominion took the lead with under 5 minutes remaining, and held off Notre Dame to win 51-50 after Notre Dame missed several 3 point attempts to tie the game, but instead made a tip in at the buzzer to lose by 1 point.
There were 4 games in the 2:30-2:50 time frame. Murray State and Vanderbilt led this slate of games, and may have been the best game of the day. Murray State held a 3-5 point lead for the majority of the game, until the final 5 minutes when Vanderbilt mounted a comeback and took the lead. The teams proceeded to trade the lead back and forth, until Murray State forward Danero Thomas hit a 17 foot jump from the foul line extended as time expired to win the game. Murray State had claimed the first big upset of the tournament, and there were certainly more upsets and big finishes to come.
Baylor played 14th seeded Sam Houston State in what would also become an unexpected thriller. The teams traded the lead back and forth all game, and the game was tied at 55 with under 4 minutes remaining. Only at this point did the Bears come to life, and outscored Sam Houston State 13-4 to end the game and escape with a 68-59 victory.
Kansas State played North Texas in a game that was only close for about the first 10 minutes. The Wildcats handily beat 15th seeded North Texas 82-62.
Finally, Richmond played St. Mary’s in the 7-10 matchup that was delayed almost an hour by the Villanova Robert Morris thriller. This was one of the most interesting games in the first round because it posed 2 smaller conference teams at a similar talent level. The 1st half proved to be a tight, well played half, as the teams were tied at 36 after the 1st half. St. Mary’s took control early in the 2nd half and refused to give it up, as the Gaels led the Spiders by more than 15 points towards the end of the 2nd half. Richmond mounted a slight comeback, but simply did not have enough time or firepower to come back. St. Mary’s won 80-71 and moved on the play Villanova on Saturday.
In the “dinner hour,” there was only 1 game played, as UTEP faced Butler. UTEP, the 12 seed, looked to upset the Horizon League winner and move on to face Murray State. UTEP took a 6 point lead into half, but Gordon Hayward and Butler took complete control in the 2nd half, and won handily 77-59.
During the night session, there were 3 buzzer beaters. That’s right, 3 buzzer beaters in 8 games. The nightcap was what highlighted the first day. First, UNLV faced Northern Iowa in the 8 vs. 9 matchup. The game was back and forth all game, until Northern Iowa guard and superscorer Ali Farokhmanesh hit an NBA length 3 point shot with 7 seconds remaining. UNLV could not get a shot off in the final seconds of the game, and the Rebels lost 69-66 to the Panthers of Northern Iowa.
Kentucky took care of 16th seeded East Tennessee State 100-71 in a blowout.
The Marquette vs. Washington game was one of the most anticipated games in the first round. Marquette took control of the game, especially early in the 2nd half, but then the Huskies crawled back into the game. Washington forced a tie at 78 with 2:09 remaining. The teams went back and forth without scoring until Quincy Pondexter hit a contested layup as he dribbled to his left with 1 second remaining. Lazar Hayward (my pick for Player of the Year in the Big East) was just long on a halfcourt shot attempt which would have won the game. However, the Huskies came back to shock the Golden Eagles 80-78.
In the final primetime game, Georgetown played 14th seeded Ohio, winner of the MAC conference. Ohio played out of its shoes, as the team shot 58.2% from the field and 56.5% from 3 point range. Georgetown simply could not keep up with the rampant shooting by the Bobcats. However, the Hoyas were not without blame. The Hoyas’ 18 turnovers gave Ohio a lot a momentum and opportunity, which carried the Bobcats through the game.
In the late night session, each of the games were interesting for either the entire game or the majority of the game. Kansas played 16th seeded Lehigh, and the surprising and upstart Mountain Hawks answered each of Kansas’ runs until about the 10 minute mark in the 2nd half, at which point Kansas sprinted ahead and did not look back. However, upset minded fans were kept enthralled for a large part of the game by Lehigh’s aggressive, run and gun style, and the team’s 3 point shooting success. KU moved ahead late and won 90-74.
Wake Forest and Texas was an absolutely unbelievable game. Two teams that really struggled down the stretch in the regular season played one of the most closely contested games of the 1st round. Wake had the lead for the majority of the game, but Texas creeped back into the game late to force overtime. Texas looked to put the Demon Deacons away with a 7 point lead in the extra frame, but Wake Forest would not give up. The combination of scoring by Wake late in the extra frame and missed free throws by Texas put the Deacs down only 1 with 10 seconds. Speedy guard Ish Smith raced down the floor, changed directions twice, and finally shot a twisting 15 foot jumper that fell to give Wake the 81-80 win. What an unbelievable finish this game provided. Wake will play Kentucky on Saturday for the right to advance to the Sweet 16.
Tennessee played 11th seeded San Diego State, winner of the Mountain West. Tennessee controlled the game by retaining a 3-5 point lead for the majority of the game, but San Diego State mounted a mini-run in the last 5 minutes to cut the Tennessee lead to 1 point with 10 seconds remaining. However, after Tennessee hit 2 free throws, the Aztecs misses a last second 3 point shot that would have tied the game and sent it to overtime. The Volunteers jogged off the court victoriously celebrating to “Rocky Top,” and the team will return Saturday to play Ohio.
The final came of the night was between New Mexico and 14th seeded Montana, who won the Big Sky Conference. The upset minded Grizzlies took a 1 point lead into half, after which New Mexico went on a run that put them ahead by double digits. However, the Grizzlies slowly creeped their way back into the game, and Montana cut its deficit to 1 point at 1:44 remaining in the game. Anthony Johnson did everything he could to keep Montana in the game, but New Mexico was simply too strong in the end, and the Lobos won 62-57.
That is a brief recap of all 16 games of the first round of the NCAA tournament. It was one of the best days I have ever seen in the tournament, and certainly the best first day of the tournament I have ever witnessed. The remainder of the first round will be played Friday, March 19th.