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First Four produces first tourney classic

3/16/2011

DAYTON, Ohio -- The First Four has a long way to go to match the Final Four. But as far as warm-up acts go, maybe the NCAA is on to something.

The first installment of the new four-game, first-round format provided a fantastic finish -- and our first March Madness hero.

His name is Matt Dickey, a junior guard for North Carolina-Asheville. Dickey's 3-pointer with 10.5 seconds left in regulation against Arkansas-Little Rock forced overtime, where the Bulldogs went on to win 81-77.

One game, already one shining moment. But even Dickey wasn't originally too keen on the idea of beginning his tournament run in Dayton, calling it the "play-in game" on the postgame news conference dais.

"We were kind of disappointed, because we heard we were going to be a 16 [seed] playing Duke in Charlotte, possibly, or maybe move up to a 15," he said. "But our coaches said this is a good chance to play a team on a big stage that's about our caliber. And we did."

Arkansas-Little Rock was actually better than North Carolina-Asheville most of the game. The Trojans trailed for only a few seconds in the first 40 minutes. But they could never build a comfortable lead, and UNCA hung around long enough to close strong.

For that, the Bulldogs can thank Dickey, who scored 19 of his 22 points after halftime. The tying 3-pointer came on a step-back move from the corner he's been perfecting for the past two years.

"My 3-point shooting wasn't so good last year, so my coaches told me to keep working on it," he said. "It had to come in handy some point, and I guess it did tonight."

Dickey fits the underdog profile we like in our madness idols. He's from a town of 12,000 called Trussville, Ala., just outside of Birmingham, and his main college suitor other than UNC-Asheville was Shorter, an NAIA school.

The First Four had the potential to make its participants feel like they're shorter than the rest of the field. But the Bulldogs weren't complaining too much. They got to fly to Dayton on a charter plane, the first time any of the players had ever flown anything but commercial. After wrapping up interviews and getting dressed, they were heading back onto another charter to Washington, D.C., where they'll face No. 1 seed Pittsburgh on Thursday in the Southeast Regional.

"We're going to feel presidential again," guard J.P. Primm said.

The opening act of the NCAA tournament had a pretty regal feel to it, too.