Yesterday was an absolutely glorious day. And not just due to the warm weather outside for a Saturday in March. And I should have known when I saw my two boys playing their favorite table top basketball game in the kitchen that it was going to be a very special day in this year's March Madness (and no folks, this picture wasn't staged - they REALLY love this game).
It was a glorious for three mid major teams that weren't expected by many to get to the Sweet 16, but they did. Each team got there its own unique way yesterday. And for each of them, that's what made it a day to remember.
For one team, Butler, they had to fight for survival against an underdog team that had won 31 games on the season. For the other two teams, St Mary's and Northern Iowa, they were facing two heavily regarded, highly seeded teams. It was St Mary's and Northern Iowa that played like the heavily regarded, highly seeded teams.
I spent the later part of yesterday morning and early afternoon with my family up in Theodore Roosevelt Park in Oyster Bay. It's a park I have spent a great amount of time in over the years. I first knew about Roosevelt, as we called it, from playing softball in the Town of Oyster Bay Night League. The park is right on the water and when you are playing there on a late April night, it can be awfully cold.
But Chelle, the kids and I have been there many times since. In fact, when we asked Matthew what playground he wanted to go to yesterday, he said "the one in the picture". We have a framed picture in our dining room of the four of us from last year at Roosevelt.
After spending a few hours in the playground and playing wiffleball in the park, my wife knew that I had to get back to watch the St Mary's game. Though I felt somewhat terrible that we had to leave the park on a gorgeous day to go home so I could watch a basketball game, she knew how important the game was to me.
Chelle is great like that. She is probably the most accommodating person I have ever met in my life. Chelle respects my love of college basketball. And until lately, I didn't know how much she read my basketball articles (here's to hoping she reads this one too).
You see, I am a HUGE fan of St Mary's. I have been singing their praises for a few years on this site, and featured them in article in January. There have been many articles written about this Gaels team on this site. I wrote about when they were hosed out of the Tournament last year despite showing evidence that they should have been in as an at large.
I lamented the fact that they were squarely on the bubble after their second regular season loss to Gonzaga. And when they finally broke through the Zag glass ceiling and defeated Gonzaga in the WCC championship game, I noted "it was sooooooo great to see St Mary's win Monday night vs. Gonzaga."
So I was very happy to see St Mary's defeat Richmond on Thursday behind a dominating performance by Omar "Enter the Sandman" Samhan. The question now was how they would do against a Villanova team that survived an overtime battle vs. Robert Morris. I was worried the Wildcats would be more prepared for the Gaels than they were the Colonials.
As we drove back home from Oyster Bay, I was listening to the Westwood one broadcast of the game. And immediately my fears were dashed. By the time we got home, Samhan was in the midst of scoring eight points in the first seven minutes and the Gaels were up 16-11.
Then Samhan picked up his second foul and head to the bench. Nova took immediate advantage of that. When Dominic Cheek buried a three to tie the game at 17, I got so upset that I spilled ice from my now otherwise empty McDonald's large sweet tea cup.
Then came the gutsiest move of the NCAA Tournament so far. To stop the Wildcats momentum, Gaels coach Randy Bennett reinserted Samhan into the game. And immediately, the Moraga Monster restored order. St Mary's went on a 10-2 run capped by who else, Samhan with a layup to go up 27-19 with 7:05 left. Samhan would leave for the bench again. Villanova again tried to make a run, but once again Bennett reinserted Samhan, who promptly hit a three point play. The Gaels went into the half up 38-31.
The second half saw Nova finally make a big run. Antonio Pena scored five straight points to tie the game at 51. Then Corey Fisher's two point layup gave Villanova their first lead since the 15:20 mark of the first half as the Wildcats went up 53-51 with 9:41 left. But Samhan hit a layup to tie the game at 53.
It seemed every time Nova had the advantage, Samhan would respond. Tyler King hit a three to put Villanova back up one. Samhan then hit a layup to put the Gaels back up one. Maalik Wayans hit a jumper to put the Wildcats back up by two, but then Samhan hit two free throws to tie the game at 61 with 5:04 left.
Over the nearly next three and a half minutes, the teams would only score a combined eight points. Nova would again tie the game on two Corey Fisher free throws with 1:35 left. Then came the big play of the game. Mickey McConnell took a high arching three point shot which banked in and put the Gaels up to stay 68-65. The shot took the wind right out of the Wildcats as St Mary's went on for the 75-68 win.
Of course, who had the ball last? Samhan of course, who tossed the ball high into the air in jubilation. Omar had 32 points on 13 of 16 shooting from the field and 6 of 8 from the line. In two tournament games, Samhan has averaged over 30 points per game and has shot a ridiculous 75 percent from the field (24 of 32).
So with one of my favorite teams winning, it was onto another of my favorite teams, Butler as they took on the talented Murray State. I had been saying since February the Bulldogs were one of the best sixteen teams in the country and I hoped that they would prove it yesterday.
However the game that featured two solid offensive teams turned in a defensive barn burner. It was very evident that the Racers were very quick. Too quick in fact for the Bulldogs. Butler had a difficult time getting good shots off against Murray State. And again, the Bulldogs found themselves down at halftime for the second tournament game in a row 26-22.
Murray State extended their lead to seven 33-26 to start the second half. During this span, Howard picked up three quick fouls and headed to the bench with four personal fouls. But the Bulldogs switched to a small lineup to combat the Racers. Similar to their game against UTEP, where they went on a 22-4 run to put the game away, Butler went on a 20-5 run to go up 46-38 with 6:06 left.
But the Racers weren't the Miners and they responded with a 12-1 spurt capped by a Ivan Aska two point jumper with 2:47 left to go ahead 50-47. However, Butler scored the next six points, capped by Ronald Nored's three point play to regain the lead at 53-50 with 26 seconds left. Issac Miles hit two free throws to cut the lead to one.
Then after Matt Howard hit 1 of 2 free throws to put Butler up 54-52, Murray State had a chance to tie with 18 seconds left. But the Racers never got a shot off thanks to good Butler pressure defense on the ball. The Bulldogs escaped with the 54-52 win.
The biggest surprise was yet to come. Northern Iowa, the #9 seed faced the #1 overall seed for the tournament, Kansas. The Panthers were never phased though. Once Jordan Egsleder hit a three pointer to put the Panthers up 3-2, they never trailed the rest of the way against the Jayhawks. UNI was up 36-28 at the half.
Northern Iowa stretched the lead to as many as twelve in the second half and was up by eleven, 52-41 with about nine minutes left. Kansas finally made the anticipated comeback and was down one 63-62 on a Sherron Collins layup with 42 seconds left. But finally the Panthers broke the Jayhawks late press, and Ali Farokhmanesh decided to take an open three pointer instead of running the clock down. Farokhmanesh buried the biggest three pointer in the history of the school and UNI went on to win 69-67.
The day finished with three mid major teams left in the Sweet 16. The last occurrence of that happened in 2006 when CAA member George Mason and two Missouri Valley teams, Bradley and Wichita State made it that far. With potentially Cornell, Gonzaga and borderline mid major Xavier poised to join the mix today, it could be the biggest mid major Sweet 16 party ever.