DAYTON, Ohio — Gonzaga, ready for the post-UMBC world?
Once upon a time, everyone knew what was coming when a No. 16 seed wandered directly into the path of a No. 1 seed. The underdogs would talk a good game, but wasn’t hard to truly believe, when the record was 0-and-whatever? Not anymore. And so here was Fairleigh Dickinson Tuesday night, all aglow after the first NCAA tournament victory ever, and before the Knights headed for the airport to take the charter to Salt Lake City, there was a question to ask.
Is March any different now for a No. 16 seed, barely 12 months after UMBC took down Virginia? Almost all of them said they watched that game a year ago. And now they understand more what it will mean Thursday, when they play Gonzaga.
Darnell Edge, for instance. He scored 33 points Tuesday night to carry his team past Prairie View A&M 82-76. “UMBC showed everything’s possible. We’ve got a chance to shock the world.”
Or Mike Holloway Jr., after a 10 point-14 rebound double-double. “They made the world know that’s possible. I definitely watched it. I couldn’t have imagined I’d be in that same situation, but I’ve always dreamed of being in that situation, and now I’m in it.”
Or coach Greg Herenda. “(UMBC) beat us all to the punch, but I knew it was going to happen. We’re just going (to Utah) to win a basketball game. It’s not 16 and 1, it’s college basketball. I really believe that.”
No. 16 seeds have said things like that before, but few took it seriously. Now they must. UMBC is the beacon. Or from Gonzaga’s perspective, Virginia is the warning.
Fairleigh Dickinson, at 21-13, makes a fine Cinderella story, with all the required subplots.
A story of deliverance.
The Knights had never won an NCAA tournament game. Holloway, a senior, sat in the locker room afterward and tried to put that in perspective. “This is what I dreamed of my whole entire life. For it happen for the first time for myself and the university means everything to me.”
Or as Herenda said, “We made history tonight.”
A story of atonement.
Three years ago, Fairleigh Dickinson was here and the first team knocked out of the tournament, blown away by Florida Gulf Coast 96-65. “I was the first coach out of 68 to be up here and we got our fannies kicked. I know that feeling, too,” Herenda said.
A story of adversity.
“Eleven months ago, I was in the hospital and I had two major blood clots, one in my thigh and one in my abdomen,” Herenda said. “I had a 104.5 fever and I didn’t know if I was going to make it out of the hospital. Eleven months later I sit here. And it’s not me, it’s the people of the hospital, my family and my team that brought me back to this point.”
Said Edge, “I remember us being in practice and him always just telling us that he just wanted to be there with us. All he thought about while he was in the hospital was us.”
A story of a coach who can entertain a room.
Mark Few has no chance in Salt Lake City when it comes to quotes. Herenda is a guy who in one press conference somehow included dating, Mike Krzyzewski and Malcolm X.A selection of Best of Herenda this week:
On the prospect of facing Prairie View's pressure: “It’s like Malcolm X said once, `The fear of the riot is worse than the riot itself.’”
On his team’s strategy: “The greatness comes with simplicity. We just need to do the simple things.”
On returning to the First Four: “It’s like going on your first date. You’re nervous and it’s the tenseness in your first date. But on that second date, you kind of feel a little better. You know what I’m saying? And this is our second date here.”
On his recent 200th victory: “When you win 200 games you realize how many you haven’t won. Mike Krzyzewski can sleep well tonight. (High school coaching legend) Bob Hurley in New Jersey can sleep well tonight. I’m not catching those guys.”
On his chatter to his team: “You want to hear expressions I have? Do what we do. Don’t be a hero. Don’t bore me. Have an imagination. Work on your game. Move it, shoot it, have fun, get excited. God bless us. The players tell me – I don’t even know I say it – they’ll make a mistake and I’ll just say, `God bless us.’”
What it meant Tuesday night to see his team find a way, especially guards Edge and Jahlil Jenkins, who combined for 55 points: “If any of the kids that are watching this tournament – I know you want to watch Zion and all the great ones, so do I -- but these are the heroes. The kids that are like the people watching TV, that get better every day. And that’s why March to me is mad, it’s mad.”
And now, a story of opportunity.
Fairleigh Dickinson has won 15 of 17. It is a balanced team that has put at least four players in double figures in 23 of its 34 games. This is a defining moment for a school that isn’t even as old as the event itself — born in 1942, three years after the first NCAA tournament.
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And it has an example to follow. A real one, only a year old.
“Once the game is tipped, no one’s going to be thinking about that it happened, or UMBC,” Herenda said. “As soon as the ball is tipped, we’ve got to go guard Gonzaga, that’s what we’re going to think about.
“That’s our goal, to go to Utah and stay close, hang around get a lead. That’s quite honestly what we’re thinking about right now. Call us crazy, but that’s what we are.”
No one would call them crazy. Not anymore.
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