The opening day of the NCAA tournament at Verizon Center had a little bit of everything – a buzzer-beater, some wicked defense and two teams that could conceivably be in Houston in two weeks for the Final Four. Here are some notes and more from Thursday:
There’s a term “Kemba Walker Beast Mode” that UConn fans pull out when their star junior guard is lighting up opponents. Thursday night looked a lot like that.
Bucknell tried hard to lock him down – and all he did was emerge with 18 points, 12 assists and eight rebounds.
“It was really just reading the defense. It wasn’t that hard for him,” Huskies senior guard Donnell Beverley said after the 81-52 win. “As you could see, he was just playing off how they were playing him. If it was open, he would’ve took it and scored.”
Instead, he found his teammates … often. Walker admitted that he told them to be ready to shoot once he saw the tight defense the Bison were presenting.
“It just shows how good of a player he is and how unselfish he is,” freshman Tyler Olander said. “Yeah, he can go out there and score 30 points in a game, but he also can distribute the basketball if that’s what he needs. He just does whatever the team needs.”
Just like old times, but better for Butler
The last time NCAA tournament viewers saw the Butler Bulldogs, a Gordon Hayward shot that would have won the national title glanced off the front rim.
It was just a first-round game Thursday, but this time Butler got the desired result on a buzzer-beater as Matt Howard’s layup finished off a 60-58 win over Old Dominion.
“Game-winners are fun in general. If it’s a game-winner in an exhibition game, they’re fun,” Butler guard Ronald Nored said. “But in the first round of the NCAA tournament, it feels really, really good.”
Defense gets it done for Pitt
Butler forward Andrew Smith admitted shortly after his team’s win that although he and his teammates weren’t thinking about Pittsburgh yet, they’re “probably gonna win.” The first-seeded Panthers did, cruising past UNC Asheville 74-51.
Players and coach Jamie Dixon credited a lockdown defensive effort for that.
“So happy with how we defended for the most part, and rebounded well obviously for 40 minutes, and that’s what we do,” Dixon said. “In the second half we pulled away with solid execution and rebounding and defense throughout.”
The Panthers held UNC Asheville to 30.9 percent shooting for the game.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that Pitt simply overpowered the Bulldogs. Or that stud guard Ashton Gibbs scored 20 of his 26 in the second half. But things might not be so easy for the Panthers against Butler, so they know that defense will have to show up again.
Forty minutes of frustration
Missouri is known for its “fastest 40 minutes of basketball” style, but Thursday night’s loss to Cincinnati brought the Tigers’ inexperience to the forefront against a physical, balanced Bearcats group.
“I thought I had them prepared to play against a Cincinnati team that would not go away,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said. “They’re a very physical basketball team, and I thought in the end, that was the difference in the game.”
Unable to shoot their way around some struggles, the Tigers are going home while Cincinnati prepares for UConn.
“It’s hard to get into your defense when you’re not making shots,” Missouri’s Marcus Denmon said. “I felt that we did a good job on the defensive end at times, but when you can’t – you can just keep playing defense for 40 minutes, but eventually you gotta put the ball in the basket. And I felt that eventually, some of their shots started to fall. And we fought hard out there, but we just came up short.”