Hold onto your bracket: First Four kicks off NCAAs in wild fashion
The teams at the First Four aren't first-rate, but there was plenty of excitement
Western Kentucky and BYU pulled off thrilling comebacks to advance to Thursday
MVSU coach Sean Woods told his team not to let the game define their careers
DAYTON, Ohio -- They don't tell you the so-called First Four is great basketball. Given the eight teams involved, they don't need to. Your team wouldn't be in Dayton, Ohio, on a Tuesday or Wednesday in March if it were, you know, special. If the universities of Kentucky or Kansas ever play in the First Four, pack up some bottled water and head for the cave in Montana. Armageddon will be right behind you.
Greatness? Nope. Excitement? Possibly.
The NCAA tournament would be nothing without its drama. (And its gambling. But we digress.) It came through again Tuesday. Twice. If you watch enough basketball, it's a safe bet that occasionally you will see something you've never seen before. But two somethings? In one night?
The Madness has arrived, brother. Hold onto your bracket.
Mississippi Valley State blew a 16-point lead with five minutes to play, against Western Kentucky and fell 59-58 (RECAP | BOX). That was kid stuff. Iona was up 25 against BYU, and lost 78-72 (RECAP | BOX). WKU committed 28 turnovers, shot 30 percent from the field, missed 15 of 17 threes, went 19-for-32 from the free throw line ... and won.
BYU fell behind 49-24 with six minutes left in the first half, trailed by 15 at half, and won by six. Iona scored 55 points in the first half. They rained three-pointers, and when they weren't doing that, drove past BYU's defenders with impunity. Even when the Cougars cut it to 15 at halftime, it didn't seem they'd have enough to come all the way back.
All it took was a zone defense and the silky shooting of Noah Hartsock and Brandon Davies. Hartsock is a 6-8 senior guard who shoots feathers. His three-pointer from the right wing with 2:21 left gave BYU its first lead, 71-70, and capped a comeback that defied description.
"The heart of our guys got this done," BYU coach Dave Rose said. That, and the zone that Iona looked at like it was a final exam in Biomechanical Engineering. The Cougars stopped getting beat down the floor, extended the zone out past the three-point line and dared Iona to win a halfcourt game. The smaller Gaels couldn't do it. It's hard to score 55 points in one half. Not as hard, maybe, as scoring 17 points in the next half.
"It's part of that March Madness, I think," Hartsock offered.
The Cougars will play Marquette on Thursday in Louisville.
Western Kentucky won the inaugural game of the First Four, witnessed by the president of the United States, who maybe wished he hadn't. The Hilltoppers' 59-58 win over Mississippi Valley was an entertaining mess, a basketball game for people who like to fingerpaint.
Western Kentucky played five good minutes. Fortunately for the Hilltoppers, it was the last five. That's when Mississippi Valley blew a 16-point lead. Western stopped kicking the ball around long enough to let the Delta Devils take their turn. The Hilltoppers took it and ran with it, when they weren't tripping. At one point, Valley turned the ball over on four consecutive possessions.
"We fought out hearts out for 35 and a half minutes," Valley coach Sean Woods said. "We just let it slip away."
Actually, they dropped it, kicked it and had it stolen away. But, never mind.
It was a torturous end for the Delta Devils, who started their year 1-11, mainly because they played a road schedule that rivaled Odysseus: At Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Northwestern, Florida, Wisconsin. When they said they'd come a long way, they weren't kidding.
Woods, their coach, was a player at Kentucky. He was, in fact, the last guy to score for UK before Christian Laettner ruptured their spleens with that famous jumper in the '92 East Region final. Tuesday night, a classy Woods said he told his team in the post-mortem what his coach Rick Pitino had told him and his mates, 20 years ago:
"Don't let this game define your basketball careers."
"The same guys that (faltered) down the stretch are the same guys that won 17 in a row," Woods noted. "Highs and lows, man. That's college basketball."
Western Kentucky can relate. Tuesday's game wasn't unusual for Western, at least not lately. The Hilltoppers have been hiking most of the season. After firing a coach in midseason, then having to win the Sun Belt Conference tournament just to get an audience with the president, rallying from 16 down was a stroll in the holler.
If they win two more, they'll get to .500 for the year. That's not entirely out of the question. Neither is hiking K2 in flipflops. At 16-18, they get to play the top seed in the entire tournament. Kentucky awaits Thursday, in Louisville. WKU coach Ray Harper decided a good strategy for his team would be to "to get ahead at the opening tip, have the shot clock break down and hold the ball the rest of the game."
Sounds like a plan.
There's a decent chance that Western and BYU will be watching the tournament by Friday at noon. That's of little consequence today. If you're still playing, anything is possible. It's not called Madness because it's sane.
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