The first few days of the NCAA tournament mark one of the best times on the calendar for sports fans every season. This year’s version has not disappointed.
There have been the upsets we see every year, the Cinderella squads that America falls in love with and enough crumpled and discarded brackets to fill a landfill. Fans were even on the edge of their seats for multiple No. 1 vs. No. 16 matchups.
So which games have been the best throughout the first three days? Read on to find out, and remember that a close final score doesn’t necessarily mean it was a quality game (such as the free-throw fest that was Creighton beating Cincinnati or the free-throw clanking contest that California displayed against UNLV), but it certainly doesn’t hurt.
Here were the games that you definitely should not have missed.
North Carolina looked like the North Carolina of old in the first half of its quest to get coach Roy Williams his 700th career victory in the game against Villanova.
The Tar Heels climbed out to a 20-point lead early, but the scrappy Wildcats kept fighting back. It looked as if Williams’ NCAA record of consecutive tournament appearances with at least one win was not going to stretch to 21 when Villanova seized the lead.
But the Heels got hot from behind the three-point line and built a nine-point advantage that Villanova once again almost overcame before eventually succumbing 78-71. It set up the matchup between Williams’ former team (Kansas) and his current one.
P.J. Hairston led the way with 23 points on a blistering 7-of-11 shooting, which included five threes. It will be interesting to see if North Carolina’s small lineup it went with down the stretch of the season will give Kansas any trouble.
The game between No. 11 seed Saint Mary’s and No. 6 seed Memphis was the first closely contested battle of the NCAA tournament, which merits some type of extra credit for fans who watched blowouts before it.
The Tigers jumped out to a 15-point lead in the first half, and it looked as if the Gaels were running out of steam after playing in the First Four game on Tuesday. However, Saint Mary’s continued to chip away until it found itself down five with a mere four seconds remaining.
One banked in three-point shot and turnover later, and Gael star Matthew Dellavedova had a chance to live out every young player’s dream in the NCAA tournament. His game-winning shot hung in the air for approximately 45 seconds if you ask Memphis, but the Tigers survived 54-52 as it sailed wide.
Joe Jackson led the way for a Memphis team that tallied an impressive 12 blocks with 14 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
Whenever a No. 8 seed matches up with a No. 9 seed in the NCAA tournament, a close game is almost sure to ensue (unless that No. 9 seed plays in the SEC like Missouri).
That is exactly what happened when No. 8 North Carolina State faced off with No. 9 seed Temple. The Owls, behind the gutsy effort of injured star player Khalif Wyatt and his 31 points, held off a furious late charge from the Wolfpack 76-72.
Temple built a 17-point lead before North Carolina State started hitting threes and locking down on defense (which just so happened to coincide with Wyatt’s injury). Were it not for Wyatt’s clutch free-throw shooting down the stretch (12-of-14), it likely would have been one of the biggest collapses in recent NCAA tournament memory.
The back-and-forth game could have served as a metaphor for the inconsistent season the Wolfpack produced. They never could quite live up to their lofty preseason expectations, even with wins against Duke and North Carolina, and will have to spend the rest of the tournament on the couch.
It’s going to happen one day. It might not be in our lifetime, but a No. 16 seed is going to knock off a No. 1 seed eventually.
It almost happened Thursday afternoon when the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs were tested for 40 minutes by an athletic and confident Southern squad. The Jaguars did everything an underdog has to do by surviving momentum spurts, draining 10 three-pointers, blocking eight shots with a harassing defense and getting the neutral crowd members involved.
Ultimately, Kelly Olynyk was too much for Southern to handle (he scored 17 of his 21 points in the second half) inside, but the Jaguars had the game tied with a mere three minutes remaining before falling 64-58.
Gonzaga’s performance did nothing to quiet the criticism it has received in recent days for playing a schedule not worthy of a No. 1 seed, but Southern did not play like a No. 16 seed.
It’s not every tournament that a No. 2 seed spends the entire second half frantically chasing the No. 15 seed from behind, but that’s exactly what happened in the contest between Georgetown and Florida Gulf Coast.
The Eagles dominated the Hoyas for the 20 minutes following intermission and held on to win 78-68. It was yet another embarrassing chapter in recent Georgetown NCAA tournament history.
However, Florida Gulf Coast was not your typical No. 15 seed. The Eagles beat Miami earlier in the regular season and hung with Duke for a while before the Blue Devils pulled away. Their athleticism and high-flying dunks caught the nation and Hoyas off guard. It wouldn’t be particularly surprising if the Eagles knock off San Diego State for a trip to the Sweet 16.
Considering Florida Gulf Coast didn’t even start classes as a university until 1997, this was an incredible upset no matter who the Eagles beat in the regular season.
One of the best things about March Madness is the fact that the country finds out about those unheralded small schools that pull of massive upsets and enter the national consciousness. Maybe now more people will be aware of that spunky school in the Northeast named Harvard.
The Ivy League’s one representative busted plenty of brackets by knocking off a popular Final Four darkhorse in New Mexico. The Crimson poured in eight three-pointers and shot better than 50 percent from the field en route to overcoming the Lobos’ size and physicality advantage to prevail 68-62.
The key to the game was Harvard’s defense on Tony Snell, who dominated the Mountain West tournament but was held to a mere nine points on 4-of-12 shooting. It was a rough first round for the Mountain West, despite being heralded for much of the season, and New Mexico’s early exit did nothing to quell that.
Gonzaga was subjected to plenty of criticism this week heading into the NCAA tournament thanks to the fact it received a No. 1 seed despite playing a weak schedule in the mid-major West Coast Conference.
Well, if you want to judge an entire season on the NCAA tournament, that criticism was entirely warranted. The Bulldogs struggled to put away No. 16 seed Southern and then were upset by an underrated Wichita State squad from the Missouri Valley.
The Shockers jumped out to a 13-point lead in the first half but allowed the Zags to seize control after intermission. Just when it looked like the game was slipping away from Wichita State, the Shockers started getting hot from downtown and carried the momentum all the way to a 76-70 victory.
Wichita State will play the winner of the Ole Miss and La Salle game, while Gonzaga will go home and wish that its tournament foes were of WCC caliber.
College basketball fans were treated to an entire afternoon of blowout games on Saturday until No. 3 seed Marquette and No. 6 seed Butler gave viewers a March classic.
It was a back-and-forth affair throughout, but it looked like the Golden Eagles finally had it sewn up with a four-point lead and a mere four seconds remaining on the clock. However, a full-court pass leading to a layup and then a costly Marquette turnover gave the Bulldogs a chance at a final shot.
Andrew Smith's game-winning three-point attempt drew nothing but backboard though, and the Golden Eagles avoided the type of collapse that they benefited from in the previous round against Davidson and held on 74-72.
Vander Blue turned in another superstar-caliber game with 29 points and four steals and has the Golden Eagles set to play either Miami or Illinois in the Sweet 16.
It looked like La Salle was going to seize defeat from the jaws of victory, and then the Explorers went ahead and seized victory from the jaws of defeat.
No. 13 seed La Salle dominated the first half against No. 4 seed Kansas State and held an 18-point advantage at intermission. The Explorers hung on for dear life as the Wildcats came roaring back and edged Kansas State 63-61.
Kansas State briefly held a lead but didn’t hit a field goal in the final four minutes of the game after it appeared like it was going to pull away. Jerrell Wright’s three free-throws in the last 30 seconds propelled the Explorers to the win, but it was the combined effort of Ramon Galloway (19 points) and Wright (21) that made the difference.
The Explorers are in the same conference (the Atlantic 10) as VCU, so perhaps they can get some tips in their quest to go from the first four to the Final Four. They will have to go through Marshall Henderson and Ole Miss next.
Someone forgot to tell No. 14 seed Davidson and No. 3 seed Marquette that it’s just more fun for Americans skipping work and watching basketball when the team that collapses down the stretch and succumbs to a final-second shot is the favorite.
Nevertheless, the Wildcats and Golden Eagles treated us to a memorable basketball game thanks to Vander Blue’s late spurt. The Marquette star scored seven of his team’s final 10 points, including a critical three with 28 seconds remaining and the game-winning layup, and saved the Big East from taking another disappointing early loss.
Davidson held a late nine-point lead, but Marquette’s late pressure and timely shooting was too much to overcome. The Golden Eagles outscored the Wildcats 13-5 in the final 93 seconds, and Blue’s game winner was the first go-ahead shot made in the last 10 seconds of a game in the past two NCAA tournaments.
Even if no brackets were busted with this one, it was still a postseason classic.