Sunday, March 8, 2009

Upset Saturday and Some Teams Go Dancing

The first few days of conference tournament action were basically chalk. Saturday though proved that again this was March Madness. Just about every conference tournament had what considered to be an upset (except the WCC where Santa Clara and Portland both won) and one specifically, may have cost a team an at large berth.

In the Missouri Valley, the first semifinal game saw Northern Iowa defeat Bradley 76-62. After Friday's near loss to the Sycamores, and a halftime tie with the Braves, the Panthers did not want to test fate again. Up one with 11:57 left, Northern Iowa went on a 10-0 run over the next three and half minutes to go up 55-44 and never looked back. Adam Koch had 22 points and Kwadzo Ahelegbe added 21 for the Panthers, as the number one seed advances to the Valley finals.

Then came the Creighton-Illinois State game and it reminded us why this is the Bizarro Valley. The Redbirds had come into Arch Madness on a seemingly downward spiral, having lost three in a row, one of which was to the Bluejays. More importantly, the preseason MVC player of the year, Redbird guard Osiris Eldridge had been struggling. In those three losses, Eldridge shot only 9 of 29 from the field.

But Eldridge has found his stroke in St Louis. Against Evansville, he shot 6 of 12 from the field for 14 points in a win over the Aces. Then Eldridge topped himself against Creighton, scoring 21 points on 8 of 14 from the field, including 4 of 5 from beyond the arc as the Redbirds demolished Creighton and most likely the Bluejays' hopes for an at large bid 73-49.

As much as Eldridge and Champ Oguchi (18 points on 6 of 8 shooting from beyond the arc) were responsible for shooting down the Bluejays, Creighton themselves helped revoke their dance ticket. A combination of the Redbirds defense and awful shooting resulted in Creighton's 27 percent field goal percentage, including an ugly 4 of 22 from beyond the arc. Friday's hero, Booker Woodfox had a rough day shooting 4 of 13 from the field (including 2 of 8 from beyond the arc). Illinois State now faces Northern Iowa in the Valley championship game today on CBS.

This is the kind of loss the committee remembers. Illinois State suffered a similar fate in last season's Valley championship at the hands of Drake. This is even worse because it happened in the semis and was a day after the miracle shot at the buzzer that saved Creighton from losing to Wichita State. It doesn't look good for the Bluejays.

It wasn't just the Jays who got upset. In the America East, both the second seed, Vermont, and the third seed, Boston University lost in overtime. The Catamounts, my pick to win the America East title, lost to the host team for the tournament, Albany. It was Vermont's second loss to the Great Danes this season. Should Binghamton beat New Hampshire today, the Bearcats will either host a six or seven seed in the final.

In the Summit, there were nearly two upsets in the first quarterfinal round. #1 seed North Dakota State blew a 19 point halftime lead but came back to beat those Gentlemen of Centenary 83-77. The last fourteen Bison points came on free throws. However Oral Roberts couldn't avoid an upset and the second seeded Golden Eagles lost to the tournament host Jackrabbits of South Dakota State 72-69.

The SoCon had the re-emergence of Steph Curry and one major upset. Davidson struggled with Appalachian State for a good part of the game. In fact, the Wildcats were only up one 56-55 before a 10-0 run sealed the game for Davidson. Curry, who only played 10 minutes of the first half would score the final 13 Wildcats' points and end up with 43 on the day. The Wildcats will now play College of Charleston in the much-anticipated semifinal matchup. The Cougars shot 10 of 20 from beyond the arc and easily handled Western Carolina 67-48 as Andrew Goudelock led the way with 16. The Cougars ended the Wildcats SoCon winning streak earlier this season on Davidson's home floor.

The other side of the SoCon bracket saw Chattanooga barely hold off Elon 79-78. However, the other game was the major upset in the SoCon tourney as Samford 76-67 handled #3 seed The Citadel, the other SoCon team to beat Davidson this season. "Hey Lamont, the Big One's coming" - I know I know, that's Sanford, but hey it sounded funny to me.

The MAAC had only one minor upset, as #5 Fairfield, without three starters from the beginning of the year beat #4 Manhattan. The other games were won by chalk handily. Siena crushed Canisius by 25, Niagara smoked Marist by 29 and Rider beat St Peters by 9.

ESPN2's trio of conference championships started with the Big South Championship as #2 VMI played #1 seed Radford on the Highlanders' home court. Did you know the over/under for the game was 170 points? That's pittance when you have VMI playing. Ten players on both sides would score in double digits. In a usual VMI high paced entertaining game, where defense is at a premium. Radford would win 108-94, as the frontcourt of the Highlanders was too much for the Keydets. Artsiom Parakhouski and Joey Lynch-Flohr would combine for 43 points and 28 rebounds as the Highlanders outrebounded the Keydets 56-24. VMI would stay in the game by forcing 27 turnovers and shooting 16 of 50 from beyond the arc. Yes, you read correctly. FIFTY field goal attempts beyond the arc. Austin Kenon led VMI with 34 points while the Holmes twins, Chavis and Travis combined for 33 points. Chris McEachin had five of Radford's ten blocks and 18 points.

Afterwards, I watched the championship of the Atlantic Sun yesterday on ESPN2. As predicted by me prior to the start of the tournament, which is further proof that blind squirrels can find nuts, #2 seeded East Tennessee State came out and jumped on #1 Jacksonville and won 85-68. The Bucs went out to a fifteen-point halftime lead and the Dolphins were done there. ETSU's Miami Vice combination of Smith and Tiggs, otherwise known as Mike Smith (22 points, 12 rebounds) and Kevin Tiggs (21 points) had the Bucs up by as many as TWENTY NINE, 71-42 before the Dolphins cut the final score under twenty. Jacksonville's Ben Smith led all scorers with 28 points.

Then if you were still watching ESPN2, after the ASun game, you got treated to an absolutely dandy of a March Madness game in the Ohio Valley championship. Austin Peay and Morehead State treated the fans in Nashville to an exciting finish in regulation, then to two overtime periods to boot. Morehead State came back from a ten point second half deficit to tie the game late at 55 on four straight free throws. Then with eight second left in regulation, off a timeout, Brandon Shingles found Austin Faried for an alley oop dunk to put Morehead State up two. But Caleb Brown hit a bank shot with no time left on the clock to send the game to overtime.

In the first overtime, the Eagles and the Governors traded six points over the first four minutes and eight seconds. However neither team could score over the last 52 seconds, thus double overtime tied at 63. In the second overtime, the teams seemed to be offensively tired and for the first four minutes and fifty eight seconds, the teams scored a whopping four points combined and the game was tied at 58. But as is often the case, March Madness makes heroes out of role players. In this case, Steve Peterson, a rarely used freshman forward who averages less than 2 points per game hit a jumper with two seconds left for his only points of the game, and the Eagles of Morehead State won the OVC Championship. It's their first NCAA tournament appearance in 26 years for Morehead State.

Finally ESPNU had both games of the Horizon League semifinals at historic Hinkle Fieldhouse. First Butler took on Wright State. The Bulldogs had swept the season series from the Raiders, winning the games handily by 16 and 18 points respectively. With that in mind, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 12-3 lead and it looked like the Butler was about to put a third beat down on Wright State.

But this is March Madness and this is the Horizon League, so the regular season often means squat. Throw in the fact that the Raiders are coached by one of the best minds in basketball, Brad Brownell, and there's always reason for hope. Wright State responded with a 13-4 run and the game was tied at sixteen. Butler would go up four at the half 32-28 and then with the lead still at four, 46-42, a mini 7-0 run by the Bulldogs would put Butler up eleven, 53-42 with eight minutes left. The Raiders would chip away at the lead, outscoring the Bulldogs 14-5 over the next nearly seven minutes, and the lead stood 58-56 with 41 seconds left. Butler's Gordon Hayward hit only one of two free throws and the Raiders had a chance to tie the game down three. But N'Gai Evans missed a three-point attempt and the Bulldogs would prevail 62-57.

Matt Howard led Butler with 24 points on 14 of 15 free throw shooting, Cory Cooperwood led the Raiders with 11 points. Both teams shot 41 percent from the field but the big difference was Butler was 24 of 31 from the line while Wright State was only 5 of 8 from the line.

In the second game, two twenty plus win teams, Wisconsin Green Bay and Cleveland State faced each other. Early on, it looked the Phoenix were going to run the Vikings out of Hinkle Fieldhouse as the Wisconsin Green Bay jumped out to a 16-4 lead as Ryan Tilemma nailed two three pointers. But led by eleven points from Cedric Jackson, the Vikings trimmed the lead to 23-19. The Phoenix would extend the lead back to ten before the Vikings cut it to six, 39-33 at the half.

The second half saw Cleveland State slowly chipped away on Green Bay's lead and when Jackson nailed another three, the Vikings were finally in the lead for the first time in the game, 52-50 with 10:48 left. During this time, the Vikings showed their trademark defense and locked down on the Phoenix inside. Cleveland State would never trail again and go on to a hard fought 73-67 win over Green Bay. Norris Cole led the Vikings with 23 points, J'Nathan Bullock added 16 points and 8 rebounds, and Jackson had 14 points and 8 rebounds for Cleveland State who outrebounded Green Bay 36-25. The Phoenix were led by Tilemma's 21 points, Green Bay shot 5o percent from three, 9 of 18, but only shot 14 of 39 from the rest of the field as Cleveland State controlled inside.

Cleveland State will now face Butler at Hinkle Fieldhouse, home of the Bulldogs on Tuesday night for the Horizon championship. The Vikings lost both games to the Bulldogs by a total of three points. Could three times be the charm for Cleveland State? Can't wait to find out.

I'll be back later with my review of the second day of the CAA.

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