I think fans who watched the two bracketbuster games got exactly what they wanted. Two entertaining games , both of which went as according to what I thought was going to happen, sans the end of the second one.
First, I watched a really impressive Niagara team overwhelm Illinois State in front of a sold out and loud Gallagher Center inas the Purple Eagles downed the Redbirds 70-56 last night on ESPN2. What a way to kick off the Bracketbusters! The Eagles just came out and took it to the Redbirds. A 14-0 run highlighted by four three pointers put the Purple Eagles out to a 20-6 lead. Before you knew it, the lead swelled to twenty, 35-15, before Illinois State went on an 8-0 run to trail by 12 at the half. Illinois State did cut the lead down to six, 62-56 before Niagara scored the last eight points in the game.
In the battle of the highly regarded transfer students, Bilal Benn, formerly of Villanova had 17 points and 11 rebounds for Niagara. Champ Oguchi, formerly of Oregon, had 19 points for Illinois State. Niagara was led by Tyrone Lewis who had 19 points on 7 of 14 shooting. Osiris Eldridge, the preseason pick for MVC player of the year had a really off night, with only three points on 1 of 12 shooting. Eldridge blew at least two dunks and a layup off what was a really nice move. Just not his night.
Not often does this blind squirrel find a nut, but this game really went according to my preview. First Niagara is really quick, in fact the Purple Eagles were too quick for the Redbirds. This really showed on the defensive end as Niagara showed why the lead the MAAC in steals as they had 15 on the game. When Niagara went out on that 14-0 run, Illinois State looked like deer in headlights. They never really recovered from that. Niagara shot 42 percent from the game.
Second, again as noted in my preview, Illinois State relies on the three heavily and when they are off, they are in trouble. The Redbirds shot 4 of 18 from beyond the arc for the game. When Illinois State finally adjusted in the second half to working the ball inside for often easy layups, the Redbirds made that run to cut it to six. But by then it was too little too late. Illinois State was held to 38 percent from the field.
It will be interesting to see if this is a sign of things to come in the other MAAC-MVC game today when Siena hosts Northern Iowa (the top two teams in each conference). If Siena dominates Northern Iowa the way Niagara did to Illinois State, this will bode really well for Siena's case for an at large bid. Because, let me tell you, after watching the Purple Eagles, they could beat a good number of at large power conference hopefuls. They are quick, relentless and very aggressive on the defensive end.
In the second game, Nevada overcame a nine point deficit with six minutes left to beat VCU 71-70 in what was a really wild contest. You had the head coach of Nevada get tossed with two technical fouls in the second half before the Wolfpack's late run. You had Nevada's Brandon Fields, who entered the game shooting 18 percent from beyond the arc hit 3 of 6 three point FG attempts. You had VCU's Larry Sanders get three fouls in the span of five minutes in the second half, thus fouling out and leaving the Rams without any frontcourt presence. And to top it all, one of the best clutch players in the mid majors, VCU's Eric Maynor, would dominate most of the game but miss four of his last five shots from the field.
The first half would have Nevada go up 19-12 early as freshman sensation Luke Babbitt and Joey Shaw would score 12 of those points. VCU started to chip away on the lead thanks to a eight quick points by Bradford Burgess to make the score 23-20. Led by Maynor, the Rams would actually take a four point lead 32-28 at the half.
The second half picked up where the first half left off as VCU's 90 foot up tempo game was too much for Nevada. This is what I expected would happen in this game. The Rams jumped out quickly to an eight point lead 36-28 and extended it to a ten point lead, 55-45 with ten minutes left as of course Maynor had eight of the those points.
Then things got really interesting. After one official overturned an out of bounds called by another official by calling a foul, Nevada's Mark Cox lost it and got two technicals in the span of 18 seconds and was tossed from the game. Maynor would hit three of the four technical foul shots and the Rams were up nine, 60-51. The lead would remain nine, 62-53 with six minutes left. Then Nevada made it's run, starting with an Armon Johnson three point play, Brandon Fields hitting a three and Malik Cooke's three point play made it 64-62 VCU with 3:19 left. The lead for VCU would be three 67-64 with 1:40 left.
It was during this time that Kiril Pischalnikov picked up his fifth foul and Sanders picked up three quick fouls (all stupid fouls I may say) and fouled out himself. This left VCU without any size up front and Nevada's Armon Johnson took advantage. Johnson would hit two layups to put Nevada up 68-67 with 28 seconds left. Maynor would miss his second of three consecutive missed shots and Joey Shaw continued the Wolfpack's very solid free throw shooting with two more hits from the charity stripe. Maynor would miss a three with six seconds left and after Babbitt clinched the game with one of two free throws, VCU's Joey Rodriguez would hit a meaningless three to make the final 71-70.
Nevada struggled from the field only shooting 36.8 percent from the field compared to 43 percent from VCU. But boy did they hit their free throws , 24 of 27. VCU shot a respectable 21 of 27 but most of that came from Maynor shooting 14 of 15 from the line. Larry Sanders was only five for ten from the line. Also, in the second half, outside of Maynor, who had 28 points, there was no other scorer down the stretch for VCU. Burgess had eight of his ten points in the first half and Larry Sanders had fouled out with two minutes left (and only had 9 points on 2 of 11 shooting from the field). Thus when Maynor was off at the end, there was no help for him. That's VCU's weakness, a consistent second scorer.
Nevada was much more balanced as five players scored in double figures, led by Babbitt and Fields each with 15. By the way, that was more like the Brandon Fields that I expected to see than the disappointment he has been this season. Johnson and Cooke each had 13 and Shaw had 11.
We can only hope that the other eleven games today will be as entertaining as these two games.