March came in like a lion. Few teams were safe on the first full day of the NCAA tournament. Few leads were, too. It was the day of living dangerously, and all the rest of us could do was try to keep up and maintain a wary eye on our brackets.
There were five one-point games in the entire 2013 and '14 tournaments combined. There were five on Thursday, a record for one day. Six so far in this tournament, if you count the First Four. A pair of No. 3 seeds were wiped out by No. 14 seeds in the first three hours Thursday. Twelve of the 20 games in this tournament so far have been decided by four or fewer points.
Has March ever been quicker in going mad?To review the boffo first act: Thursday was the day Georgia State broke Baylor’s heart on R.J. Hunter’s nearly 30-footer in the final seconds, a shot so stunning it knocked his coach and father Ron – the one who hurt his Achilles tendon last week celebrating the conference title -- off his stool. It might have been the first coaching belly flop in NCAA tournament history. "I’m not going to be a coach. I’m going to be a dad right now," Ron said afterward.
Do the Hunters and Panthers believe in miracles? "Now we do," R.J. said.
Thursday was the day UCLA beat SMU on a shot that didn’t even go in. Bryce Alford’s winning 3-pointer for his father looked short, until SMU’s Yanick Moreira grabbed it too early to force a goaltending call. "I can’t remember anything quite like this one," said SMU’s Larry Brown, who has coached more than 2,500 games.
It was also the day North Carolina blew a 16-point lead against Harvard in the second half, and had to win in the final minute. "It’s the luckiest I’ve ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said.
Thursday was the day Baylor lost a 12-point lead in the final 2:53 against Georgia State, Purdue coughed up a seven-point advantage in the final 48 seconds of regulation in an overtime defeat by Cincinnati, and Notre Dame nearly squandered a 12-point lead in the final six minutes against Northeastern, but survived.UCLA could lead by 10 in the second half Thursday, then be outscored 19-0 by SMU, then win with eight points in the final 65 seconds. Iowa State could start 12-2 against UAB and lose. VCU could lead Ohio State by 12, and fall in overtime. LSU could lead by 16 points in the second half, but miss its last 12 shots, and six late free throws, and be beaten by North Carolina State 66-65 on a left-handed hook shot by Beejay Anya, who put up three field goal attempts all game.
You couldn’t make this up.
"I tell our players all the time -- they probably get tired of me saying this -- and I believe it. It’s the greatest show on earth," North Carolina State coach Mark Gottfried said afterward. "Amazing things can happen."
Thursday was the day freshman D’Angelo Russell scored 28 points and had blood running down his face, as he pushed Ohio State past VCU in overtime.
"I watched this my whole life," Russell said of the tournament. "Just knowing that a lot of great teams go down, a lot of underdogs achieve, just with the mentality that anything can happen."
UAB’s biggest lead against Iowa State on Thursday was three points. The irony is that the Cyclones had fallen behind by 10-plus points in their last five games in the vaunted Big 12, and won them all.
"Maybe," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said, "we should have let them get up double digits."
Alford took 11 3-pointers for UCLA and made nine of them Thursday. Wesley Saunders went all 40 minutes and scored 26 points for Harvard, pushing North Carolina to the very brink before losing by two. Villanova shot 63 percent and had six players in double figures. UAB outrebounded Iowa State 52-37. Notre Dame outscored Northeastern 17-0 in points off turnovers. Arkansas and Wofford fought through 10 ties and 18 lead changes before the Razorbacks escaped 56-53.
Oh, and Kentucky won 79-56 as Hampton shot 28.8 percent.
It was a bad day for the Big 12. Down went Baylor, Iowa State and Texas.It was a great day for the Big East. Forward marched Butler, Georgetown, Villanova and Xavier.
It was a remarkable day for Hunter father and son. On the other bench was Baylor’s Scott Drew, whose brother Bryce once sank a famous tournament game-winning 3-pointer for their father Homer at Valparaiso.
"I think I’ve been a part of one of the best moments in college basketball in the NCAA tournament with my brother hitting that shot," Scott Drew said. "And I think I’ve been part of one of the worst I’ll remember."
Yes, the tournament giveth and the tournament taketh away. "I’ve been on both sides," said UCLA coach Steve Alford, who was definitely on the good side this time. "That’s the madness of March. As special as March is and as exciting as March is, this tournament can be so much fun and so much life and energy. But it’s brutality when it ends, regardless of how it ends."
Especially when it ends the way it did for so many on Thursday.