That was the NCAA tournament at its very best
There's a saying Beatles fans have about "Let It Be," the group's last album, which is also widely considered to be its worst: The worst Beatles album is still better than anything else.
So it is with the NCAA tournament. In March, the worst opening Thursday is still better than any other day on the calendar. An ordinary day of madness is still madness. A ho-hum 12-hour stretch of tournament basketball is still as good as sports get.
The opening day of the 2014 NCAA tournament began with Dayton's thrilling one-point upset of Ohio State, stretched into the final moments of Manhattan's near-shocker of Louisville, and produced four overtime games in one day for the first time in its history.
If a standard NCAA tournament Thursday is "Let It Be," this one was "Revolver."
Sure, there were some by-the-numbers blowouts in the mix. There always are, right? In Milwaukee, Wisconsin went on a 40-6 run to pull away (and then some) from poor American. Syracuse had an offensive reawakening in a 77-53 win over Westren Michigan. Adreian Payne scored 41 points on 10-of-15 shooting (and 17-of-17 from the free throw line!) in Michigan State's opening demolition of Delaware -- a reassuring performance for a No. 4 seed that millions (including the president of the United States) picked to win it all.
Florida was slightly more disconcerting, but still moved on, in its 12-point win over Albany. Michigan had zero issues with Wofford; Villanova handled Milwaukee. And Pittsburgh and Oregon ran roughshod over Colorado and BYU, respectively -- two overseeded teams hollowed out by injuries to crucial players.
Every other game was thrilling. Literally.
The madness began in the very first game of the day, a matchup of two Ohio teams separated by 72 miles of Interstate 70. Ohio State has been the state's dominant power for nearly a decade under Thad Matta; the Buckeyes went to the Final Four in 2012, and were a few plays away last season. Dayton, on the other hand, was making its first NCAA tournament appearance in five years, and only barely so -- the Flyers were pegged by most bracket-watchers as a likely First Four entrant, and probably only avoided it thanks to the NCAA's squeamishness about seeding a team into its home arena. But there Dayton was, in the closing moments of its eventual 60-59 win, watching reserve guard Vee Sanford float past senior Aaron Craft for the game-winning runner. Craft heaved the final desperate shot of his career helplessly off the glass a few seconds later, and then laid prone, staring at the ceiling, for what must have felt like an eternity.
Next up was Harvard-Cincinnati, the first of three blood-boiling No. 5-No. 12 matchups. Harvard entered the tournament a trendy upset pick. It didn't take long for it to show why: Against one of the most imposing, physical defenses in the country, Harvard was even better, holding the Bearcats to just 37 percent from the field and managing late offensive situations expertly, in the 61-57 win.
Great game. But there was so, so much more to come. We had no idea.
It was 7 p.m. ET when things really got nuts. The next seven hours -- or maybe it was seven minutes, time blurred -- would produce a record four spine-tingling overtimes, each more joyously draining than the previous.
The first was a survival. Connecticut, the No. 7 seed in the East, trailed for most of its 89-81 win over St. Joe's. It wasn't until Shabazz Napier officially took the game over late in regulation that the Huskies got close enough to force overtime on Amida Brimah's game-tying 3-point play. UConn nearly won it in regulation; the Huskies ran a picture-perfect full-court inbounds to get Napier an open 3. After Halil Kanacevic fouled out in overtime, UConn pulled away.
The next two overtime games, both 5-12 matchups, happened almost simultaneously in exact opposite corners of the country. In Orlando, Saint Louis trailed NC State by 16 points with eight minutes to play, and looked shockingly helpless to stop star forward T.J. Warren all the while. But the Billikens gradually chipped away at the Wolfpack's lead, NC State did its part -- missing nine of its final 21 free throws over the final 5:03 of regulation. Calling it a giveaway might seem insulting to a resilient Saint Louis team. But to Pack fans, that's how the 83-80 loss will feel.
Meanwhile, in Spokane, perhaps the most purely entertaining game of the day kept the exhilarating momentum going. North Dakota State and Oklahoma traded baskets for 40 minutes, both team's mixes of offensive brilliance and defensive mediocrity producing one fluid exchange after the other. When it was finally over -- after NDSU's Lawrence Alexander hit the game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime, after the Bison's 1.11 points per possession proved enough to hang on to an 80-75 win -- Bison coach Saul Phillips sprinted into a celebration before remembering that he still needed to shake Lon Kruger's hand. You could hardly blame him.
And then there was Texas-Arizona State, in which the Longhorns and Sun Devils each played their best offensive games of the season before Cameron Ridley's just-on-time, look-what-I-found putback pushed Texas over the edge. Ridley's winner produced what might become the most memorable picture of the tournament -- Arizona State's reserves collapsed and sprawled on padded seats and the hardwood in front of them.
And then there was Louisville's raw-fingered escape of Manhattan. The Jaspers, led by former Rick Pitino assistant (and one-time ballboy) Steve Masiello, played the Cardinals in their own pressing style to a 60-60 draw for 38 minutes. Louisville forward Luke Hancock hit the two ice-cold 3s to stamp out what would have been the craziest, most inconceivable, bracket-bustingest result of the day.
And then, in the final game of the night, there was New Mexico State. After trailing big in the first half and bursting out of the gate in the second, the Aggies walked an infernal tightrope of game-sealing situations against No. 4 seed San Diego State. The Aztecs kept missing just enough free throws, and committing just enough turnovers, to let the No. 13 seed hang around. Meanwhile, New Mexico State fought as hard as any team all day, and were as crushed as any by the overtime loss.
After his team's overtime loss, NMSU coach Marvin Menzies, a former SDSU assistant, failed to fight back tears.
"Our heart and soul went into the dream [San Diego State is] now living," Menzies said, his voice breaking.
The NCAA tournament always gives us these moments. Every year, it shows us ecstasy and desolation in equal measure. It does this even when the games aren't great, when whole hours go by without a close game, when Cinderella never shows up to the ball.
But on Thursday, the NCAA tournament was, even by its own lofty standards, at its absolute mind-blowing best. It was the Beatles in 1966, at the height of their powers. It was a 12-month dream turned into sudden and glorious reality.
Now let's see what Friday has in store.
Happenings In Spokane
Deciding factor: Harvard made its free throws down the stretch and Cincinnati misfired wildly on a late 3 to allow the Crimson to put the game away.
Key stat: Cincinnati star Sean Kilpatrick was held to fewer than 20 points for the second straight game. He hadn't been held under 20 twice in a row since January.
Deciding factor: Adreian Payne owned the day, scoring a career-high 41 points to lead the Spartans
Player of the game: Payne. Of course it was Payne, who also contributed eight rebounds to go with his big day at the offensive end.
Key stat: Need more Payne? How about the fact he made all 17 free throws he took, which was a tournament record.
Deciding factor: North Dakota State needed an extra session to get it done, but the Bison picked up their first NCAA tournament win.
Player of the game: Lawrence Alexander. He went 10-for-15 from the field and hit 4-for-7 on 3-pointers for a game-high 28 points.
Key stat: Oklahoma tried to live by the 3. It made 12, but it also took 30. The Bison, meanwhile, did their damage at the foul line, where they went 20-for-22.
Deciding factor: The fourth overtime game of the day ended when Xavier Thames carried San Diego State with late free throws.
Player of the game: Thames. He got the job done at the line and finished with a game-high 23 points.
Key stat: It goes back to the overtimes. San Diego State and New Mexico State closed with the day's fourth overtime game, an NCAA tournament first.
Happenings In Orlando
Deciding factor: This one was over in a hurry, with Pittsburgh racing out to a 30-7 lead to open the game. It never got any better for Colorado.
Player of the game: Talib Zanna. On an easy day for the Panthers, he scored 18 points to go with five rebounds in the win.
Key stat: Pitt committed three turnovers. Yes, three turnovers. Colorado coughed it up 17 times.
Deciding factor: Give Albany credit -- it hung tough against the No. 1 overall seed Florida. The Gators wore down the Danes late, a 16-6 run doing the damage.
Player of the game: Dorian Finney-Smith. The sophomore forward came off the bench and scored 16 points, which is something, considering he had three against Kentucky and none against Tennessee before that.
Key stat: Albany held its own on the glass, trailing just 30-27 in rebounds, and matched the Gators with 10 turnovers.
Deciding factor: NC State could not close. The Wolfpack led by 14 with five minutes left in regulation and then lost in overtime.
Player of the game: Rob Loe. He went for 8-for-11 from the field, scoring 22 points. He also grabbed 15 rebounds as the Billikens pulled off a stunning comeback.
Key stat: Neither team could shoot free throws very well. NC State went 20-for-37 and Saint Louis went 12-for-26. Not pretty at all.
Deciding factor: Luke Hancock bailed the defending champions out with a pair of key 3-pointers down the stretch to push off Manhattan's upset bid.
Player of the game: Hancock. There's a reason he was the most outstanding player at last year's Final Four. He scored 16, including the two late 3s.
Key stat: The reason the Jaspers stayed close was they held Louisville to 36.4 percent from the floor and shot 45.1 percent themselves.
The Latest Dish
Ohio State's Aaron Craft tried to pull off some late heroics, but Dayton wasn't letting this chance get away.
There were 15 lead changes, but it was the last one that mattered most, getting the Flyers that win they coveted.
Happenings In Buffalo
Deciding factor: Vee Sanford's running, go-ahead bank shot from the right side with 3.8 seconds lifted Dayton to a win in the fight for Ohio.
Player of the game: Sanford. Could it be anyone else? He offset Aaron Craft's final-minute heroics with his own and finished the game with 10 points off the bench.
Key stat: Dayton went 13-for-17 from the free throw line, including three straight with 26 seconds left by Dyshawn Pierre.
Deciding factor: Syracuse had the balance and punch offensively that it lacked as it struggled down the stretch. Four Orange players scored in double figures.
Player of the game: Trevor Cooney. The Orange guard had been off, much like his team, the past few weeks. He started the tournament well, scoring 18 in the opener.
Key stat: The Orange shot 41.2 percent on 3s and outrebounded Western Michigan 41-25.
Deciding factor: Saint Joseph's and UConn both had good looks at the end of regulation; neither converted. But the Huskies pulled away in OT.
Player of the game: Shabazz Napier. It wasn't the prettiest performance, but he got the job done and scored 24 as the Huskies moved on.
Key stat: UConn finished the game at the foul line. The Huskies went 18-for-20 from the stripe, not giving St. Joe's another chance in the second half.
Deciding factor: Milwaukee kept it close, trailing by just four at halftime, but Villanova shook awful 3-point shooting, used its advantage inside and pulled away.
Player of the game: Darrun Hilliard II. His 16 points led five Villanova scorers in double figures.
Key stat: Milwaukee made just 18 shots and was held to 28.6 percent from the field.
Happenings In Milwaukee
Deciding factor: Wisconsin simply had too much talent for overmatched American and it showed right from the start. The Badgers led by 10 at half but opened the second on a 28-4 run.
Player of the game: Everyone? OK, if it must be just one: Traevon Jackson. He went 6-for-8 from the floor and finished with a game-high 18 points.
Key stat: The Badgers outscored the Eagles 43-13 in the second. Yes, that is accurate, and for American, unfortunate.
Deciding factor: BYU just didn't look the same without injured guard Kyle Collinsworth, and Oregon rode Elgin Cook's career-high 23 points.
Player of the game: Cook. He had scored 15 total points over the past four games, so 23 against BYU was a bit unexpected.
Key stat: Oregon went to the free throw line -- a lot. The Ducks shot 38 free throws and hit 31.
Deciding factor: The Wolverines worked the 3-point line, and those seven 3s were enough advance .
Player of the game: Nik Stauskas. He was efficient; he took just nine shots but made five of them to score a game-high 15 points.
Stat of the game: How bad was Wofford from the 3-point line? Try 1-for-19 bad. Yes, that bad.
Deciding factor: Texas blew a big lead, but Cameron Ridley's putback as time expired lifted the Longhorns past Arizona State.
Player of the game: Not only did Ridley have the game-winner, but he also led the Longhorns in scoring with 17 points and in rebounding (12).
Key stat: Texas got contributions from a lot of players. Six Longhorns scored in double figures, offsetting the 25 points from Arizona State's Jordan Bachynski.