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" Shouldn't that be seven and counting? Way to go CATS, 1998 NCAA Champs! "
  - OnOnUK

Racket in the Brackets

The upsets and buzzer beaters of the opening rounds augured perhaps the most exciting NCAA tournament ever

by Alexander Wolff

Posted: Wed March 18, 1998

Immediate occupancy. Tournament Towers, 1998 March Madness Boulevard, Suite 16. Spartan accmdns w/all cmfrts of Homer. Husky dogs, 'Cats O.K. Pking 4 Rams. You see LA; no prairie vu. Utes incl.

Michigan was gone, beaten 85-82 moments earlier by UCLA in the second round of the NCAA tournament, as Bruins seniors Toby Bailey, J.R. Henderson and Kris Johnson made their way down a hallway in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on Sunday night. Just outside the interview room the three players caught the image of Rhode Island coach Jim Harrick on an overhead TV monitor. Harrick, who had guided UCLA to an NCAA title in 1995, was 750 miles away at the Midwest subregional in Oklahoma City just then, leading the Rams to an 80-75 upset of top-seeded Kansas. "Look," Johnson said. "There's Coach."

  Beastly battles for boards
Beastly battles for boards marked UCLA's win over mighty Michigan.    (Bob Rosato)
No, someone reminded him, Steve Lavin is now the Bruins' coach. "I think that's why they created the word surreal," Lavin would say of the moment. "That's art imitating life, or life imitating art—or something like that."

Or something not at all like that, for the first week of this NCAA tournament seemed to be derivative of absolutely nothing. There have been other NCAAs in which a No. 1 seed failed to reach the Sweet 16. (It has happened five times during the 1990s, twice now to Kansas.) There may have been a year in which more early-round upsets racked the bracket and times when there were surprises more seismic than these. There may even have been tournaments with more subregional buzzer beaters. But never have so many of the things that make for a delicious NCAAs come together at the same time. Eight double-digit seeds won their first-round games, and three—No. 13 Valparaiso, No. 11 Washington and No. 10 West Virginia—survived into the second week. Eleven games in the first two rounds were decided by three points or less, five by a single point. Four games needed overtime, and only a few were never in doubt.

You usually need bricks to erect a building, but Tournament Towers is wrought of the gossamer of soft jump shots, the jury-rigging of deflections and loose balls, even a play so preposterous that it seemed incapable of springing from its blueprint. Our building would be a short drive from Sunset Beach, what with the Pac-10's four entries winning all eight of their games. There would be a fun house mirror in the lobby; how else to explain Princeton's pressing and shooting down UNLV, of all teams, with a 20-0 run, and then getting backdoored by a Michigan State crew that outpassed, outshot and outassisted the Tigers in a 63-56 victory? For a lease on Suite 16, anyone would be willing to take out a loan. Washington guard Donald Watts, who scored 17 points and set up teammate Deon Luton for the game-winning jumper in the Huskies' 69-68 upset of Xavier, is the son of former Seattle SuperSonics star Slick Watts. The senior Watts, now proprietor of an industrial-cleaning business called Slick and Clean, follows his son so devotedly that he's $22,000 in debt—and counting. "I ain't got no money," he said after the Huskies qualified for the East Regional in Greensboro, "but I'm going to Carolina."

Some prospective tenants tried their best but could claim only temporary residency. Illinois State beat Tennessee when forward Dan Muller sank a layup with 1.8 seconds left in OT, only to fall hard to defending champion Arizona two days later. Richmond, the 14th seed in the East, survived an errant in-the-lane runner by South Carolina guard BJ McKie in the dying seconds of its first-round upset of the third-seeded Gamecocks, but the Spiders could turn away few of the point-blank shots of Washington's monument, 7-foot Todd MacCulloch, who had 31 points and 18 rebounds in round 2. Even Indiana's first-round defeat of Oklahoma, a game in which the Hoosiers held a 19-point lead with 13:07 left, went to OT before the Hoosiers won - only to be ousted two days later by the No. 2 seed in the East, UConn, whose own first-round victory over 15th-seeded Fairleigh Dickinson wasn't assured until the final minute.

Consider Cincinnati guard D'Juan Baker. With 3.6 seconds remaining in the Bearcats' first-rounder with Northern Arizona, he secured a 65-62 victory with a cold-blooded three-pointer. But such were the standards for this tournament that two days later the bar for heroism had been raised. This time Baker made a three from virtually the same spot with 7.0 seconds to play, giving No. 2 seed Cincy a 74-72 lead over West Virginia - but leaving just enough time for the Mountaineers' Jarrod West (no one but West Virginia could suit up a Jarry West) to fling one last shot.

Drew launched
his last-second three
Under the watchful eye of Dad (left, arms folded), Drew launched his last-second three against Ole Miss. Then the celebration began.    (David E. Klutho)
When the Bearcats' defender, Ruben Patterson, tipped the ball, it could do only one thing: thud half dead off the backboard and through the hoop - perhaps because said hoop, at the east end of Boise State's pavilion, is the one locals know as Edney's Hole, for it's the basket through which another 5'10" guard, UCLA's Tyus Edney, dropped the winning shot against Missouri during the Bruins' championship run in '95. The final score after both Edney's and West's heroics was 75-74. "Did he tip it in?" West said, repeating an interrogator's question about Patterson's D. "I think God knocked it in."

In fact, West earlier had made a sort of pilgrimage to the altar. As the teams gathered for the opening tip, West left midcourt for a moment to jog to the goal that would be so merciful 40 minutes of play later. He jumped up, slapped the glass with both hands and then returned to center court.

Unlike Muller and Baker, most of the first round's most resourceful shotmakers survived the second. Syracuse's Marius Janulis is a stubborn 6'5" guard from Lithuania who, when asked once whether he could dunk, snapped, "When dunks are worth three points, I'll work on my dunking." In the Orangemen's opener with Iona, he sank a game-winner twice over. The Gaels led 58-57 with under a minute to play when Janulis bottomed out a three-pointer, only to watch Iona point guard John McDonald throw in an off-balance three of his own that gave the Gaels the lead anew with :24 left. That set up Syracuse's last possession, in which Todd Burgan had his shot blocked; after regaining possession, he looked up to catch a glimpse of the clock. Janulis happened to be in his line of sight. Three seconds was just enough time for Burgan to find him with a pass and for Janulis to sink another three.


Issue date: March 23, 1998

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