by Aaron Kaplowitz
During the full second that a basketball needs to reach the rim on a three-pointer, visions of David’s stone whizzing toward Goliath’s head materialized on the collective conscience of the Villanova-heavy crowd at Philadelphia’s Wachovia Center on Thursday night. The 14-seed American University Eagles were about to become the newest Cinderella, less than 20 minutes away from slaying the powerful Villanova University Wildcats on the first day of NCAA Tournament ‘09.
Brian Gilmore’s open three from the right side fell short, and AU missed an opportunity to go up 48-31. His shot would get marginalized in the box score as just another missed field goal, but Gilmore’s three was the game’s true turning point. Instead of going up by 17 points, American left the door open for Villanova to steal the momentum. Once ‘Nova found its footing, the Wildcats, powered by Dante Cunningham, outscored American 39-16 over the final 14 minutes to win, 80-67.
Although it was an ephemeral flash of basketball brilliance, AU guards Garrison Carr and Derrick Mercer ran circles around the lauded Villanova backcourt, looking poised and confident as hunted took on the role of hunter. With an average height of 5-10, they played with boundless energy. Carr and Mercer v-cut with purpose, setting up backdoor cuts, effective flex screens and constant motion. In the end, the gas ran out, but AU seized the opportunity to display their talent and resolve on the national stage.
“I’m sure we changed a lot of people’s minds the way we came out and played,” said starting swingman Frank Borden. “The things we heard fueled us a bit. We weren’t going to go down without a fight.”
Carr was lights out from beyond the arc during the first half, drilling five bombs. He finished with six triples on his way to 22 points.
“He has a very quick release,” said Villanova’s Dwayne Anderson. “He’s a great shooter. We’ve played plenty of players like that in our conference.”
The all-senior AU starting five may have played its final game together, but not all was lost. During halftime of the nightcap thriller between UCLA and VCU, the team stood unified as one in the players’ tunnel, taking in the inspiring sight of UCLA’s female dance team engaged in synchronized thrusting and gyrating at midcourt, all in the name of art. Not a bad parting gift.
As entertaining as the curvaceous UCLA dancers are, they played second fiddle to the UCLA Bruins-VCU Rams, the No. 6 vs. No. 11 matchup. Two years ago, behind Eric Maynor’s last-second shot, VCU knocked Duke out of the NCAA Tournament. With an improved Maynor returning, many had penned in VCU for an upset special — the same people who myopically disregarded UCLA’s three trips to the Final Four in the past four seasons.
With seven minutes left, UCLA looked like a team ready to go deep into March, leading VCU by 11. But Maynor would have none of it. The senior box score filler (he finished with 21 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds) took the Rams on his back, bringing them to within one, 65-64, after knocking down two free throws with 48 seconds to play.
UCLA put the ball in floor leader Darren Collison’s hands. He drove hard to his left and flicked a layup that was swatted by VCU big man Larry Sanders, forcing a shot-clock violation.
VCU had 11.6 seconds to take the ball 90 feet, erase a one-point deficit and inscribe its name in Tournament lore.
Everyone knew who would be deciding the outcome.
After a VCU timeout, UCLA set up a full-court man-to-man press. Maynor got the ball across half-court and dribbled to the left wing. With Collison on him, he flung a fade-away jumper as time inspiring that clanged off the front rim.
Day One over.
– BYU never seemed to find a rhythm on its way to a 79-66 loss to Texas A&M. Physically, the Cougars have a massive front line. They have great spacing and run the break beautifully. But they couldn’t hang with the Aggies who played inspired at every position.
– After handily defeating BYU, Texas A&M players were talking about how confident they are going into tomorrow’s game. Josh Carter said that if you would bring the Cleveland Cavaliers in tomorrow, they could beat them. When I threatened to tell LeBron, he laughed and thought it best not to.
– UConn played without head coach Jim Calhoun, who was hospitalized after his doctor recommended so. He is expected to be back on the sidelines for tomorrow’s game against Texas A&M. One has to wonder if Coach Calhoun would have left his starters in for as long as Coach George Blaney did. With the game well out of reach in the second half against Chattanooga, Blaney didn’t replace all of his starters until only a few minutes remained. One twisted ankle would have been enough to put Blaney on the hot seat for the rest of the Tourney. UConn squeaked by 103-47.
– By the looks of how A&M played yesterday against BYU, I think they can play with any team in the country. With last year’s near upset over UCLA still fresh on their minds, UConn better not let Calhoun’s hospital stay become a distraction. A&M plays a patient, inside-outside offense that deflates when they drain the three deep into the shot clock.
– According to an NCAA employee, the Texas A&M pep band arrived late because someone prank called the bus driver, telling him to arrive an hour later than scheduled. When asked about the incident, the band members had no idea. “They didn’t tell us anything,” said the trumpeter. Or was it the trombonist?
– Is it me or does BYU always seem to get an No. 8-seed in the NCAA Tournament? Does anyone out there know their seeding history?
– The 2008 Princeton Review lists BYU as the No. 1 Stone-Cold Sober School, a fact that BYU brags about in its media guide. Sign me up.
– I’m setting the over-under on BYU’s average age at 24. I dare you to take the under.
– Scottie Reynolds never really seemed to find his comfort zone. Villanova is not going to win too many games when its top player scores zero points in the first half.
– Eric Maynor struggled mightily when Darren Collison face-guarded him. Unfortunately for the UCLA senior, foul trouble forced freshman Jrue Holiday to cover the VCU star.
– When sitting, Hasheem Thabeet’s legs are the same level as Jerome Dyson’s chin.
– The VCU pep band director wore a black robe with gold sequins and black feathers around the collar and sleeves. While most directors lead with their hands, he leads with his loins. When he’s not humping the air, he’s either changing costumes, shedding clothing or integrating countless props all with the same slogan: “Total Package.” He’s college basketball’s version of Carrot Top, only if possible, less funny. But at least he has fun doing it. To get an idea, check him out.
– It’s hard to blame the kid, but Maynor should not have settled for a jumpshot on the final play. The play that was drawn up in the VCU huddle clearly broke down, when Maynor found himself struggling for breathing room and no pick in sight. He should have taken the ball to the basket. UCLA was in the double bonus and Collison was guarding him with four fouls. That is no situation to settle for a tough jumper, so says the reporter from the sideline, munching on pretzels and sipping his Diet Coke.
– If a tournament with no clear-cut favorite is supposed to be wildly unpredictable, does predictability in effect make it unpredictable?