The final batch of Sweet 16 games on Friday had to do a lot of heavy lifting to bring the excitement back to this year's NCAA men's basketball tournament after Thursday's matchups were all decided by at least 14 points.
Fortunately, the few remaining underdogs that made it through the opening weekend were set to take the floor. The Gonzaga Bulldogs and Syracuse Orange were the only double-digit seeds left standing, with one of them assured a spot in the Elite Eight as they battled each other.
The Notre Dame Fighting Irish and Wisconsin Badgers, while not exactly underdogs, given they come from power conferences, faced off in a showdown of teams seeded outside the top five. The Virginia Cavaliers were looking for their first trip to the Elite Eight since 1995, with the Iowa State Cyclones standing in their way.
Friday's slate was headlined by a showdown between the Indiana Hoosiers and North Carolina Tar Heels, two teams with rich traditions and stellar performances in the tournament thus far.
With so much firepower on display across the four games, here's a look at the scores and reactions from the Internet over what went down:
North Carolina 101, Indiana 86
The marquee game of the day turned out to be not much of a contest, as North Carolina destroyed Indiana by a final of 101-86. Things actually weren't even that close, but the Tar Heels took their foot off the gas pedal down the stretch.
Marcus Paige came back to life with four quick three-pointers in the first half to set the tone for North Carolina:
Marcus Paige caught fire in the first half with 4 triples!https://t.co/5NI8rZrqQU— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 26, 2016
After scoring 22 points in North Carolina's first two tournament wins, Paige had 21 points in 27 minutes against Indiana. He also entered the Tar Heels' record books with his six three-pointers, per ESPN Stats & Info:
Marcus Paige: His 6 3PM tie Shammond Williams for the most in an NCAA tournament game in North Carolina history pic.twitter.com/86AgBeMMBR— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) March 26, 2016
Paige had plenty of help from his fellow starters, who almost outscored Indiana on their own with 84 combined points.
Brice Johnson, who is a double-double machine, took a little while to catch fire but still lived up to his moniker with 20 points and 10 rebounds. He also made the defensive play of the game with this block on Indiana's Yogi Ferrell in the second half:
Anyone who had hope for Indiana coming into the game has not been paying attention to the (short) history between Roy Williams and Tom Crean, per Sports Illustrated's Ted Keith:
Roy Williams has faced Tom Crean twice in NCAAs. Scores: 94-61 (2003 F4; KU-Marq) and 101-86 (2016 Sweet 16). Neither game was that close.— Ted Keith (@SI_TedKeith) March 26, 2016
Granted, there was only one previous matchup between the two head coaches before tonight, but there was an obvious difference in talent favoring North Carolina from the tip that wound up playing out.
The one player keeping Indiana around was Yogi Ferrell, whose historic Hoosiers career ended with 25 points and four assists. He also explained his feelings about the program over the last four years, per Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv:
"I feel like I gave my all to IU...and it's just something I will remember." Yogi Ferrell— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 26, 2016
Even though the final score was not what Ferrell wanted, IU basketball tweeted out a nice stat he can hang his hat on:
There is a time for reflection on what Ferrell was able to accomplish at Indiana. There is no need for North Carolina to do that yet, as the Tar Heels have a quick turnaround before Sunday's game against Notre Dame.
Syracuse 63, Gonzaga 60
After sitting on the bubble during Selection Sunday, the Syracuse Orange advanced to the Elite Eight by knocking off the Gonzaga Bulldogs, 63-60.
Michael Gbinije got to play hero for Syracuse, hitting a put-back layup after his own miss to take a 61-60 lead with less than 22 seconds remaining:
Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim had high praise for Gbinije after the win, per Syracuse radio announcer Matt Park:
Boeheim on Gbinije: "He's the most underrated of any player I've ever coached." #OrangeNation— Matt Park (@MattPark1) March 26, 2016
The senior forward has also gone from the lowest of lows to an incredible high during his career in the NCAA tournament, per Duke in the NBA:
Gbinije's first NCAA tournament game was a lost to Lehigh... Now he led a 10 seed to elite 8.— Duke in the NBA (@DukeNBA) March 26, 2016
On the theme of difficult defeats, though, B/R tweeted out what things were like for the Bulldogs after the final buzzer:
Gonzaga just couldn't get it done! https://t.co/4YdqnGJEqo— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 26, 2016
Yet for all the pain felt right now, the Bulldogs really have no one to blame for how things played out in this game but themselves. They had every opportunity to take control of things, yet couldn't do it. The first-half stat sheet shows how truly lopsided things should have been, per Park:
HALF: Cuse rallies form 11 down to within one, 29-28, at break. Zags 26-4 when up at half, Cuse 4-9 when down. pic.twitter.com/KF4lL5ZXat— Matt Park (@MattPark1) March 26, 2016
You can't give any team in the NCAA tournament that much of an opening without them eventually breaking through. The Orange trailed by just one at halftime, despite getting thoroughly outplayed.
Syracuse sat out the NCAA tournament last year, lost 13 games during the regular season this year, but has responded to all that adversity by playing games at its own pace. Now it's just one victory away from the Final Four.
Virginia 84, Iowa State 71
The Cavaliers secured a spot in the Elite Eight with their best offensive game since December, knocking off the Cyclones, 84-71.
It seems as though Virginia saves its best for these marquee games, because the last time it scored at least 84 points in a game was in a victory over Villanova.
There are times when Virginia can be a difficult team to watch, because it doesn't often play fast and usually wins with stout defense, but that wasn't the case with plays like this behind-the-back pass from Darius Thompson to Isaiah Wilkins:
Author Mark Titus even had some fun with the idea that Virginia's usual style of play can be off-putting:
Imagine how many points Virginia would've scored in the 1st half if they weren't ruining college basketball and were actually fun to watch.— Mark Titus (@clubtrillion) March 25, 2016
It was apparent early that everything was going Virginia's way after this three-pointer by London Perrantes:
Lest anyone be concerned about Virginia's ability to maintain its defensive aptitude, rest assured it was on display even as Iowa State shot 51.9 percent from the field. This block by Anthony Gill on Georges Niang to end the first half was a standout moment:
On the CBS telecast, Kenny Smith raved about the Cavaliers' all-around game:
Game recognize game. @TheJetOnTNT says, "If I was playing in the park, I would pick every Virginia guy. I know I would win."— March Madness TV (@MarchMadnessTV) March 26, 2016
Trailing by 17 points 11 minutes into the game, Iowa State was given sarcastic encouragement by SB Nation's Rodger Sherman:
The good news for Iowa State is Virginia plays super slow and plays great defense so comebacks are incredibly difficult. Wait, that's bad— Rodger Sherman (@rodger_sherman) March 25, 2016
Weston Peters provided a solution for Iowa State at halftime, which may have initiated a comeback, though it was always a long shot:
*Hoiberg walks out at halftime and coaches the team— Weston Peters (@weston_peters) March 26, 2016
*Crowd goes nuts
*Iowa State wins game
Yet this wasn't Iowa State's day, though Niang did at least go out in style with 30 points, eight rebounds and a wealth of accolades, per ESPN's Dean Berhow-Goll:
Georges Niang:— Dean Berhow-Goll (@DeanBG) March 26, 2016
- 2nd leading all-time scorer at ISU
- 2-time Big 12 Tournament champ
- 4 NCAA Tournaments
- 2-time First team All-Big12
Virginia has been one of the nation's best teams all year, justifying the No. 1 seed it earned before the NCAA tournament began. Gill's team-high 23 points and Mike Tobey's season-high 18 carried the Cavaliers.
After the game, Niang summed up Tobey's performance and abilities, per Wahoo Basketball:
Niang on if they were surprised by Tobey's play: "They gave him a scholarship. They probably thought he was pretty good."— WahooBasketball (@WahooBasketball) March 26, 2016
Virginia's performance should put the rest of the field on alert. Everyone knows the Cavaliers can play defense against anyone in the nation, but scoring 84 points in the Sweet 16 is an emphatic statement.
Notre Dame 61, Wisconsin 56
After stealing a win from Xavier in the round of 32, Wisconsin got a taste of its own medicine as Notre Dame went on an 8-0 run in the final 20 seconds to earn a 61-56 win.
Trailing 56-53 with 28 seconds remaining, the Irish scored four points in the span of five seconds, capped off by this steal and layup by Demetrius Jackson:
CBS Sports found a picture of Jackson following his late-game thievery:
This is a photo of Demetrius Jackson in the final moments vs Wisconsin. pic.twitter.com/JD7IYHAIWM— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 26, 2016
On the Wisconsin side of the equation, though, things were not particularly cheery:
When March happens… https://t.co/eNpeIFdBYD— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 26, 2016
Wisconsin's turnover problems down the stretch provided an opening for a scene from Mrs. Doubtfire:
Wisconsin’s 3 turnovers in the final 16 seconds cost them a trip to the Elite 8https://t.co/lzjrSMdzex— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 26, 2016
The vibe and pace of the game was similar to that of Wisconsin's first tournament game against Pittsburgh. The Badgers held a 23-19 lead at halftime against Notre Dame, which is how they needed to play to win.
The pace started to pick up in the second half, however, as Wisconsin and Notre Dame combined for 75 points. The Irish's 42 points after intermission were one fewer than Wisconsin allowed in 40 minutes against Pittsburgh.
Notre Dame's win also had positive financial ramifications for the ACC, per ESPN.com's Darren Rovell:
With Notre Dame win, ACC will make at least $33.49 million from this year's tournament, which is an all-time record take.— Darren Rovell (@darrenrovell) March 26, 2016
One of the perks of having six teams in the Sweet 16 is the money that will be rolling in. The ACC did lose two of its teams Thursday, with Miami and Duke being knocked out, but the conference is still set up nicely to have a profound impact on the Final Four.
Notre Dame started the season as a team in transition, losing Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton from last year's Elite Eight squad, but head coach Mike Brey has the Irish doing everything well at the right time.
The Irish haven't been to the Final Four since 1978, but the team has been defying the odds all season and is one win away from erasing nearly 40 years of history.
Check out Bleacher Report's live updating bracket to track your picks along the road to the Final Four.