It's been a couple of years since the first round of the Atlantic 10 Tournament had this much attention. Charlotte, Dayton and Rhode Island all hosted games and needed to move on to Atlantic City in order to maintain their hopes of getting into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large. But while the Rams took care of business by beating Saint Joseph's 87-76 and Dayton beating George Washington 70-60, the 49ers weren't as fortunate, falling to an opponent you have to beat if you're to make a solid case to the selection committee.
The 49ers dropped a 59-56 decision to UMass thanks in large part to huge plays and 24 points from Ricky Harris. Neither team shot well from the field, with the Minutemen shooting just 32.1%, but they got to the foul line (18-22; Charlotte was 5-8) and took full advantage of those "free" points. An'Juan Wilderness led Charlotte with eleven points but that wasn't enough to stem the tide of a late 9-0 run that gave UMass control of the game for good. And to a certain extent Bobby Lutz's team has no one to blame but themselves; the run was aided in large part by a Charlotte technical foul...for having six players on the court. Not going to get it done.
So while Rhode Island and Dayton get to take on the cream of the Atlantic 10 crop in Atlantic City and take one more shot at a big win the 49ers get to sit at home and think about what could have been. And also look into possible opponents in the NIT.
Three Key Happenings
1. Butler leaves no doubt in the Horizon League final. This was a game that worried bubblers across the nation since this would be a definite "bid thief" situation has the Raiders won. But the Bulldogs left no doubt in extending their nation's best win streak to 20 games, whipping Wright State 70-45 at Hinkle Fieldhouse to wrap up the automatic bid. Tournament MVP Matt Howard led the way with 14 points and nine rebounds (Shelvin Mack also scored fourteen) and the Butler defense harassed the Raiders into fifteen turnovers and 2-for-20 from beyond the arc. N'Gai Evans led the visitors with 13 points but neither of the other key contributors, Vaughn Duggins or Todd Brown, shot well from the field against Butler's stifling defense. The win also completed an undefeated run through the Horizon League in both the regular season and conference tournament; to accomplish such a feat is simply amazing. Brad Stevens' squad will most definitely be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
2. North Texas caps a wacky year in the Sun Belt with a conference title. Josh White picked exactly the right time to master the pull-up jumper in the Sun Belt final. Struggling for much of the game due to his tendency to over-penetrate, White sank a pull-up jumper with 22 seconds remaining to give the Mean Green the lead for good in a game they eventually won 66-63. He shot just 3-for-11 from the field but that doesn't matter when you knock down the game-winner. Forwards Eric Tramiel (20 points, 10 rebounds) and George Odufuwa (11 points, 17 rebounds) took care of business in the frontcourt, allowing North Texas a 36-26 rebounding advantage on the night. Four Trojans scored in double figures, led by Brandon Hazzard's 15, but it wasn't enough to overcome White's big play. And as a result the Mean Green will make their first NCAA appearance since 2007.
Top Three Games
1. North Texas 66, Troy 63 See above.
2. Seton Hall 109, Providence 106 There were few people (if any) who thought it possible for the Friars to come back when the score hit 76-47 with 13:36 to go. But they did just that, fighting back to within three before a Duke Mondy three in the final seconds missed wide left. Jamine Peterson led all scorers with 38 points (and 16 rebounds) while Herb Pope led the Pirates with 27 points and 11 rebounds.
3. Massachusetts 59, Charlotte 56 See above.
Three Notable Performances
1. F Jamine Peterson (Providence) The redshirt sophomore finished with 38 points, 16 rebounds and four assists in the Friars' 109-106 loss to Seton Hall.
2. F Derick Nelson (Oakland) Nelson led the Grizzlies to the Summit League crown with 36 points, nine rebounds and two assists.
3. F Herb Pope (Seton Hall) 27 points, 11 rebounds and five assists for Pope in the Pirates' victory over Providence.