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By Raphielle Johnson

ralphieralph@netscape.net

March 29th, 2006

 

 

   

What many believe is the greatest NCAA Tournament ever couldn’t get any better, could it? With the likes of Bradley, George Mason and Wichita State advancing to the second weekend, fans throughout the nation were captivated by the close games and the sheer unpredictability of the 2006 edition. But historically, this weekend is dominated by the “Goliath”, teams who hail from larger leagues where the revenue and big men also come in larger sizes. Some skeptics felt that while the runs of teams from the Missouri Valley and Colonial Athletic were “cute” little tales that can entertain us all, they won’t be here for long. But luckily for us fans, these teams didn’t see it that way. With Mason and Wichita State playing each other, one of these teams would go to sleep on Friday night finding themselves one game away from the promised land that so many had told them would be impossible to reach: the Final Four.

 

But don’t forget about those teams who were going up against college basketball royalty in these two days. When the brackets came out, some were excited for a possible J.J. Redick/ Adam Morrison confrontation in Indianapolis. Well, you’ll have to play that on your XBox or Playstation 2 console, because of the excellent defense of a third-generation LSU Tiger, and a team in UCLA that didn’t quit. Old Big East foes Boston College and Villanova put together a game worthy of an audience on an early March night in Madison Square Garden. And two proud sets of Huskies fought for forty minutes- then went five more in a game that despite its greatness, some will remember for some “interesting” whistles in crunch time. But don’t forget about an emerging star in the post for the Florida Gators, who plays with the same fire and passion (not to mention athleticism) that we grew accustomed to seeing from his father on the tennis court back in the eighties. Below is a roundup of the Sweet 16.

 

Thursday March 23rd

      

- Duke says goodbye to five seniors, thanks primarily to an LSU freshman.

 

Going into their ninth straight Sweet 16, some wondered aloud if the Duke Blue Devils were a modern-day UCLA. The Bruins’ run of national titles is something that will never be duplicated, so I guess that some will take anything that seems close. Not to say that this run hasn’t been outstanding, but the fact is that Duke only has one national title during that run. Thursday posed a monumental challenge for the Devils, going up against an athletic team in LSU that had multiple ball handlers and a few bodies they could throw at Shelden Williams down low. But the real question was how were the Bayou Bengals going to slow down, or dare I say stop, J.J. Redick.

 

Turns out that John Brady had the answer: freshman guard Garrett Temple. In addition to having to bring the ball up the court for the majority of the game (Duke pressured Darrel Mitchell from baseline to baseline), this third generation Tiger was given the tough task of guarding the nation’s second leading scorer, and the highest scorer in ACC history. The results were amazing. 3-for-18 from the field, including 0-for-9 from inside the arc, totaling eleven points. This was not the way in which Redick, or the legions of Duke fans throughout the nation, envisioned their team going out. Tyrus Thomas added five blocks to the LSU defensive effort, which advances to meet Texas despite going 12-for-23 from the foul line. Shelden Williams closed out his career with 23 points and 13 rebounds.

 

- Memphis ends Bradley’s dream run.

 

A thirteen seed in the Sweet 16…hard to believe, especially when they had to get through a trendy pick to get to Indianapolis (Kansas), and a tournament-tough and experienced team (Pittsburgh) followed that one up. But Bradley was able to get it done, relying on the likes of Daniel Ruffin and Patrick O’Bryant. But they ran into a well-oiled machine in the form of the Memphis Tigers. The Tiger Express has been running so well this year that many people have either ignored, or simply not heard, their accomplishments. Memphis, knowing that they were in a weakened Conference USA, took on all comers in their non-conference schedule, facing the likes of Duke, Gonzaga, UCLA, and Texas in order to build their profile. They’re deep, athletic, and know a thing or two about how to play this game.

 

Rodney Carney, the lone senior that makes a major contribution to this team, led the way with 23 points, including some thunderous dunks that seemed to take the air out of the Braves in the process. The 80-64 win moves Memphis on to the Elite 8, a place they haven’t been to since a man affectionately known as “Penny” led the Tigers that far in 1992. There they will face a UCLA team that after Thursday night’s comeback over Gonzaga has to be thinking that they could be a team of destiny.

 

-  Live by the three, die by the three.

 

West Virginia experienced this first hand in their game against Texas in Atlanta. The Mountaineers nearly shot themselves out of the game, only to shoot themselves back into the game to the point of a 71-71 tie with five seconds remaining. The Kevin Pittsnogle three-pointer came after trainers struggled mightily to get his nose to stop bleeding, and had the Mountaineers seemingly headed to overtime. But Kenton Paulino had other ideas. Receiving a pass from freshman A.J. Abrams, Paulino let fly from a couple of feet beyond the arc. And as the horn went off, the ball hit nothing but net.

 

The key in this one was the rebounding, an area in which the Longhorns dominated by a final tally of 43-15, a margin that was thought to be unheard of at this level of basketball. P.J. Tucker (14 rebounds) and LaMarcus Aldridge (13 rebounds) outrebounded the Mountaineers by themselves in this one, a feat that will be much harder to accomplish against LSU. Mike Gansey led the Mountaineers with five rebounds. But this game shouldn’t take away from West Virginia’s two-year run, something that hasn’t been seen in Morgantown for a long time.

 

-UCLA storms back from nine down to defeat Gonzaga.

 

The first thirty minutes were the worst that UCLA had played all season. Instead of attacking Gonzaga’s 2-3 zone defense, they were happy with throwing up long shot after long shot to no avail. Then, freshman Darren Collison got an idea: maybe we should drive to the basket and look for shots that way. Well, it worked. The Bruins got back into the game thanks to this new and improved strategy, not to mention the inside efforts of Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Ryan Hollins. And there was a third factor that you never thought you’d see from Gonzaga: they took the air out of the ball. A usually aggressive offense became tentative, dribbling around with no true purpose until late in the shot clock, and then hoping for either Adam Morrison or J.P. Batista to bail them out. A nine point lead (71-62) with three minutes to go suddenly became one with seconds remaining, and the Bulldogs inbounding the ball.

 

Morrison’s cross-court pass landed safely in the hands of Batista, who was then swarmed by guards Jordan Farmar and Cedric Bozeman. Farmar swiped the ball clean, and then found Mbah a Moute under the basket for the game-winner. In the ensuing mayhem, Mbah a Moute then made a diving steal from behind on Bulldog point guard Derek Raivio, getting a held ball with the arrow going to the Bruins. Arron Afflalo made one of two from the foul line, which was followed by a Batista miss at the buzzer, giving UCLA the 73-71 win. An amazing game, one which took a turn away from the bottom line of winning and losing when Ryan Hollins and Afflalo went over to help a distraught Morrison up. They could have run around the whole time, beating their chests in triumph, but they didn’t. And for a storied program that’s on its way back up, maybe this is the true measure of how far they’ve come.

 

Friday March 24th

 

-  Villanova survives the defensive play of the tournament to defeat Boston College.

 

Nothing would fall for the top seed Wildcats in the first half of their game against former Big East foe Boston College in the Metrodome. While neither team was setting the nets on fire, Villanova’s half-long slump had to make people wonder if this would be the end of their season. However, their emotional sparkplug, sophomore guard Kyle Lowry, wasn’t going to go down without a fight. He went for steals, loose balls, and fed teammates, giving ‘Nova the spark that the Nova Nation has become accustomed to seeing on a nightly basis. Add to this the offensive effort of Randy Foye (he finished with 29 points), and the Wildcats were right back in it.

 

But the Eagles were no slouch either, holding onto the lead until the later stages of the second half, and then tying the game in regulation on a Jared Dudley three with 28.4 remaining. Then, it what has to be the defensive play of this tournament, and one of the best ever, BC center Sean Williams went from the paint all the way out to the wing and blocked Lowry’s three point shot that would have won the game at the buzzer. Foye continued to work his magic, which was even more important with the poor performances of fellow guards Allan Ray (3-for-15) and Mike Nardi (he’s lost some confidence and only played 11 minutes last night). A Will Sheridan basket (goaltended by Williams) was the difference, scored on a play that also won them a game at Cincinnati last month. And despite their size advantage, forwards Dudley and Craig Smith were kept quiet (by their standards) by Villanova, who will play Florida on Sunday.

 

- George Mason continues their run.

 

This past week has been utter mayhem for the non-BCS conference members who found themselves in the Sweet 16. But I doubt that Bradley and Wichita State received the level of attention given to George Mason. ESPN, USA Today…and the list goes on. Everyone wanted a piece of Jim Larranaga and his boys, or at the least a picture of the statue of George Mason modeling his own basketball jersey while holding a shaker. You would think that the Patriots would have a tough time focusing on the task at hand…but they didn’t. With many supporters in the stands, Mason soundly defeated the Shockers 63-55, a score that doesn’t do this effort justice.

 

Folarin Campbell led GMU with sixteen points, and a team that some felt did not deserve to be in the tournament is now one game away from the Final Four. No Colonial Athletic Association team has been this far since David Robinson and Navy back in 1986. And to think, Mason had never won a tournament game before this season. With UConn up next, the “kryptonite” quote will be used over and over before tip, but the Patriots and their fans won’t mind that one bit.

 

-  Joakim Noah, not Roy Hibbert, becomes the premier post presence and Florida wins.

 

The question for Florida’s athletic post players, Noah, and Al Horford, was how do you slow down seven-foot-two Roy Hibbert? Hibbert arrived in Minneapolis having played arguably his two best games (back to back) of the season, and the Gators would have a hard time matching up with that size. So Billy Donovan went to a zone in the first half, getting mixed results. While Georgetown struggled from the field and only tallied thirty points for the half, the passive defense took away some of Florida’s aggressiveness. So he went back to their staple, the man-to-man defense.

 

And Joakim, son of tennis great and reggae singer Yannick Noah, decided to take over the paint himself. Noah finished with 15 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 blocks, and Corey Brewer’s lone field goal (an improbable flip after being fouled with less than 30 second left) was the difference in Florida’s 57-53 win over the Hoyas. Now they meet a Villanova team that pushed them around in the second round last year on their way to a 76-65 win. With this Gator outfit more receptive to the ideas of team play and selflessness, it’s going to be a lot tougher to push this team around.

 

- Connecticut escapes…again.

 

No one will accuse the Connecticut Huskies of playing their best basketball in the first three games of the tournament. There have been stretches of excellence, either preceded or followed by stretched of indifference. Sleepwalking through the NCAA Tournament is an act usually rewarded with an early trip home, but UConn has found a way to “survive and advance”, as Jim Valvano once said. Their 98-92 overtime win over their namesakes from Washington was an interesting affair to say the least. Whether you focus on the suspect officiating (okay, those guys were downright terrible), the outstanding play of Washington’s Jamaal Williams (27 points, 7 rebounds), or the clutch play down the stretch of UConn’s Marcus Williams and Rashad Anderson is up to you. But this was a game that will be seen on ESPN Classic for years to come.

 

Connecticut tallied a season-high 26 turnovers, but it was Washington’s foul trouble that made the difference in the end. Five Washington players fouled out by the time this game was over, including defensive stopper Bobby Jones and Pac-10 Player of the Year Brandon Roy. Down 80-76 with 21 seconds left, Marcus Williams went to the basket and was fouled on a made layup. His made free throw was followed on the other end by two Roy free throws to move the lead back to three, 82-79.

 

Williams then found Anderson on the right elbow, and despite good defense from Ryan Appleby, Anderson nailed the three. Overtime. But UConn nearly threw the game away late in overtime, up 94-92. Rudy Gay inbounded the ball, which was stolen by Appleby. Instead of taking the open shot, he passed it off to Joel Smith, who had his cross-court pass picked off by Marcus Williams. Williams, who hit all eleven of his foul shots, hit two more, and Craig Austrie closed the game out with two to get the 98-92 final. Rarely does a team win in spite of 26 turnovers, but dogs don’t have “nine lives”, cats do. So they’d better clean up their act in time for Sunday’s regional final against George Mason.

 

 

A tournament that was crazy enough last weekend has become even more bizarre. But as Clark Kellogg said on CBS last night, “You can’t script this stuff. This isn’t wrestling.”

 

 

 

 

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