Just another bunch of close NCAA games
Friday, March 18, 2011
About an hour before his team was to play its first game in the NCAA tournament for a 22nd time, Connecticut's Jim Calhoun was making small talk in the coaches' locker room in the Verizon Center.
"How many close ones already?" he asked.
When he was told four of Thursday's first eight second-round games were decided by one or two points, he smiled the uneasy smile a veteran coach is allowed to make at hearing that.
"There are always so many close ones early," he said. "Those are the games the good teams learn to win over a season. Those are the games some teams, even pretty good ones, just never learn to win."
Calhoun's Huskies had no trouble with their first game, beating Bucknell 81-52.
Thursday didn't come close to being an easy day for some others.
Those four early games included the day's biggest upset, 13th-seeded Morehead State over fourth-seeded Louisville, 62-61; the day's biggest near upset, fourth-seeded Kentucky beating 13th-seeded Princeton 59-57; seventh-seeded Temple's 66-64 win over Penn State on an off-balance jumper with less than a second to play; and one that should have been that close, eighth-seeded Butler beating Old Dominion 60-58 on a tip-in at the buzzer.
In the later games the close ones were No. 12 Richmond over No. 5 Vanderbilt 69-66, and No. 7 UCLA beating No. 10 Michigan State 78-76.
All but one of the 68 teams in the field will end the season with a loss. Some are a lot tougher to take because of the circumstances or the players involved or both.
"This is as tough a loss as I've had in coaching, and I've been coaching a long time, after tonight maybe too long," said Louisville's Rick Pitino, who has won a national championship (Kentucky, 1996) and taken three different schools to the Final Four. "I feel terrible for our guys because they were just a wonderful group to coach."
Morehead State's Demonte Harper hit a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left and Eagles center Kenneth Faried blocked Mike Marra's attempt from the corner to seal the win.
"I don't feel lucky," Morehead State coach Donnie Tyndall said. "Certainly some balls can bounce your way here or there. At times they bounced their way. So luck can be a tad bit of a factor. ... I don't think there was any luck involved. We were just very, very fortunate to make one more play than they did. That's it. If Demonte doesn't make the shot, they had made one more play than us up to that point."
And Harper had practiced that shot just as thousands and thousands of kids do every day in a driveway, park or gym.
"I was actually telling them how to in the media timeout, you have the ball, you be like, 'Five, four, three, two ...,'" Harper said. "That's funny you brought that up because I was thinking that exact same thing before I actually took the shot. Just came out. I believed in myself and my teammates, and coaching staff as well, to put the ball in my hands for me to take those type of shots."
Temple's Juan Fernandez hit the game-winner for the Owls, an off-balance shot off one foot.
Khalif Wyatt suggested in the final huddle to Temple coach Fran Dunphy that Fernandez take the potential game-winner.
"Juan's our leader. I mean, the ball's in his hands most of the game. So we trust Juan to make smart decisions down the stretch," Wyatt said. "And when the time came we were in the huddle I just told Coach that I think our best bet was to put the ball in Juan's hands and let him make a play. And I mean, Juan made a great play and rewarded us with a win."
It was a win that meant Dunphy's 11-game losing streak in the NCAA tournament was over.
"We've been in a lot of really good games," Dunphy said. "But this, whenever you can win and win at the buzzer is always a tremendous feeling."
It was a loss that meant Penn State's first NCAA tournament appearance in 10 years was over.
"For the rest of my life, I'll know that we didn't just come out here and get beat. It took a heck of a shot from Fernandez to beat us," said Penn State senior Talor Battle, who had tied the game with a long 3-pointer to set up Fernandez's opportunity at being a hero.
"I bet you one thing, for the rest of our lives we'll be able to watch the 2011 'One Shining Moment' and always have to see that shot."
That emotion made Battle's mistake to the media understandable.
"Unfortunately, the kid Fernandez hit a big shot for us — I mean, for them," he said.
No school knows more about close games in the early rounds than Princeton, which beat defending national champion UCLA in the opening round in 1996, and which scared the daylights out of national powers like Georgetown, Arkansas and Villanova by running a patient offense under coach Pete Carril.
The Tigers had another power program in their sights Thursday only to lose to Kentucky on Brandon Knight's driving layup with 2 seconds left.
"I think we prepared this whole week to beat these guys, and you know, our team believed that we could do it," Princeton's Kareem Maddox said. "I mean, I don't know if there was one moment where the switch kind of flipped, but you know, I just think we knew what kind of team we had and what kind of heart we had, and we knew we could compete."
Princeton coach Sydney Johnson, who played on the team that beat UCLA 15 years ago, got very emotional as he talked about his veteran team.
Kentucky coach John Calipari was relieved when he talked about his young team.
"I think they had the jitters at their first NCAA tournament game ever that they have been watching since they're 12, and all of a sudden they're starting in the NCAA tournament that's on national television," he said.
Calhoun was right. There are going to be close games in the early rounds of the tournament regardless of the seeding in front of a team's names.
Just listen to Butler coach Brad Stevens, whose Bulldogs almost pulled off the biggest upset in sports in losing last year's national championship game to Duke.
"Two really good teams playing a really hard-fought game. I think that's kind of what you envision the 8-9 game in an ideal world to be," Stevens said after the win over Old Dominion. "Both teams came out shooting the basketball well. Both teams kind of unusually found their defensive rhythm later and after the fact. Sometimes it goes the other way in a first-round game. So that's that. We were fortunate to win because we had the last possession. That's about it."