DENVER (AP) — First, Morehead State won one for the underdogs.
A 13 seed, a 12 and an 11 turned Denver into Upset City on Thursday and gave America an early refresher on why the NCAA tournament is also known as March Madness.
The crazy day at the Pepsi Center began with the most unexpected surprise, courtesy of Morehead State, the 9,000-student school in northeast Kentucky. Demonte Harper made a 3-pointer with 4.2 seconds left to lift the 13th-seeded Eagles (25-9) to a 62-61 victory over a cross-state opponent that’s a little better known: Louisville.
“I think to be a first-round game against an in-state power, to be able to knock them off, I don’t think it’s ever been bigger than that in the history of our school,” said coach Donnie Tyndall, who came up with the idea to let Harper shoot the game-winner during a nearly sleepless night on the eve of the game.
A few hours after Morehead’s upset, it was No. 12 Richmond knocking off fifth-seeded Vanderbilt 69-66 behind 25 points from Kevin Anderson. Unlike Morehead State’s players, who fell to the floor in jubilation after their win, Richmond’s calmly shook hands and walked to the locker room.
The Spiders (28-7) have been there before. Well, maybe not these Spiders. This program made its name as a double-digit seed pulling big upsets in the tournament — against Auburn in the 80s, Syracuse and South Carolina in the 90s. And now, No. 5 Vanderbilt in the 2010s.
“We have a program that can compete on a national level,” coach Chris Mooney said. “We’re proud of our tradition and history. But at the same time, right now we feel like we’re a national program.”
Pretty soon, one of these two winners will really take it to the national level. In what figures to be the weekend’s biggest bracket-buster game, it will be No. 12 vs. No. 13 with a trip to the Southwest regional on the line.
“We won one game. But we didn’t win the tournament,” Anderson said. “That’s our ultimate goal.”
Given Butler’s trip to the national finals last year — and George Mason’s trip to the Final Four in 2006 — nobody can snicker at that kind of statement from these mid-majors anymore.
Not that anyone would think twice if Gonzaga said it.
The 11th-seeded Zags (25-9) beat No. 6 St. John’s 86-71 in the last game of the day in Denver.
Some people felt Gonzaga had a “down” year this year. They struggled early. “Only” won 24 games. Many bracketologists thought they needed to win the West Coast Conference tournament to secure their trip to March Madness. Which they did. And once they made it, they looked every bit the tournament regular against the Red Storm of the Big East, leading by as many as 18 points in a game that was never really close.
“I think people know we’re a good program, so it doesn’t surprise them any more,” coach Mark Few said. “We didn’t consider ourselves an underdog in this matchup. When this popped up, we were excited to play. We’re playing the best basketball we have all year.”
The only game that went to “form” in Denver was third-seeded BYU’s 74-66 win over No. 14 Wofford. “The Jimmer” — Jimmer Fredette — scored 32 points to lead the Cougars, who won their school-record 31st game.
“I know a lot of the guys saw it and said ‘Let’s not let that happen to us,’” BYU’s Logan Magnusson said of the upsets sprinkling the brackets out of Denver. “There were a lot of upsets going on and that’s why it’s called March Madness. Teams come to play, and anything can happen.”
Can, and pretty much did in Denver, where underdogs felt a Mile High and favorites left gasping in the thin air.
The Big East, the conference that placed a record 11 teams in the tournament, went 0-2 in the Pepsi Center.
The SEC went 0-1.
The West Coast, Ohio Valley and Atlantic 10 conferences — all 1-0.
A surprise to some. But not to the teams that pulled off the upsets.
Morehead has a senior-filled team led by Kenneth Faried, an NBA-bound big man who set the Division I rebounding record.
Richmond improved to 7-2 in the program’s past nine games against teams in the Top 25.
“I hope it never comes across as arrogant or overbearing in any way,” said Tyndall, the Morehead State coach. “To be a good team or a good coach, you have to have a nice confidence level. I think our team has that.”