The play-in games were a terrible new addition, but Thursday’s action provided a swift reminder of why March Madness is a must-see event for sports fans.
The first five games of the day were decided by 15 total points — four of them by seven total.
Yet again, as is the case most years, a few new classics came about early, not the least of which was Morehead State toppling mighty Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino — who has a record 16 tourney appearances — though many have underwhelmed like this one.
Was it Butler, one of the biggest upstarts ever a year ago, needing a miraculous Matt Howard tip-in at the buzzer to survive against plucky Old Dominion, 60-58?
Or was it talent-laden Kentucky surviving against Princeton on a Brandon Knight scoop shot with two seconds remaining?
Temple’s 66-64 thrilling victory over Penn State wasn’t bad either and 2010 Final Four squad West Virginia looked like it was going to head out after Game 1 before rallying to edge Clemson by eight.
The Morehead shocker — or maybe it wasn’t if you have been reading this space — was great entertainment.
Roaring out of the gate to a 15-2 lead, beastly centre Kenneth Faried and his 13th-ranked compatriots put the hurt on the No. 4 seeded Cardinals early in what was a game of runs.
Louisville looked in control at two separate points — an 11-4 surge to open the second half and when a 61-57 lead was built with 1:14 left — but Faried, the career NCAA rebounding leader, second ever in double-doubles, gave his teammates second chances (17 rebounds in all) and they took advantage.
Trailing 61-59 and with everyone expecting Morehead State to go for two, guard Demonte Harper instead took and nailed an unbelievable three.
After a timeout, Louisville went for a long shot, trying to draw a foul on Faried, but the big man whom Pitino called “the closest thing to Dennis Rodman I’ve seen” played great defence, notching the only block of the game and the upset was a reality.
“During the media timeout, coach said: ‘I dreamt about this last night, this exact position we would be in this situation,’” Harper said of his shot. “He said: ‘I know exactly where I’m going to, I’m going to put it right in your hands, Demonte. I don’t want you to drive it to the hole, I want you to pull up and win the game off a three-pointer.’”
When it was all over in Denver, a jubilant Faried looked quite a bit like Dikembe Mutombo did back in 1994 when the NBA Nuggets shocked Seattle in the playoffs. Pitino, head slumped, walked dejectedly into the tunnel.
“This is as tough a loss as I’ve had in coaching and I’ve been coaching a long time,” Pitino said afterwards.
It was another of those moments that makes this tournament special more often than not.
Harper had missed his six previous shots, Faried shot just 4-for-17, but made two clutch free throws just ahead of the grand finale, despite being below 60% from the stripe for the season.
With the team from Kentucky having taken out the University of Kentucky’s greatest rival, the next challenge will be Richmond. In yet another shocker, No. 12 Richmond — behind 12 points, five rebounds and two blocks from Montreal’s Francis-Cedric Martel — took out No. 5 Vanderbilt. That means the next round will see a No. 12 take on a No. 13. Great stuff!
Meanwhile, Howard stepped up for Butler when it appeared that game was heading for overtime.
After failing to hit a buzzer-beater in the championship game last April, Gonzaga got one this time as Howard snuck one in just before the horn off of a broken play.
Not to be outdone, Kentucky’s star guard Brandon Knight — 0-7 from the field to that point — scooped in the game-winner after Princeton had tied the game late.
That allowed John Calipari and his group of freshmen stars to live on a year after a shocking flameout. This group, led by Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb was even worse than that John Wall-led edition, until it mattered most.
Thursday’s one shining moment belonged to Knight — or maybe it was Howard. No, we’ll give it to Faried.