ST. LOUIS – The Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders were happy, but not jubilant. Enormously pleased, but not anywhere near satisfied. No wild dances, no leaps into the air, or into each other’s arms. What had they just done, beaten North Texas in February?
No, Michigan State and Tom Izzo in March. The whole college basketball world understands how hard that is to do.“Our coach told us act like we’ve been here before and get ready for the next game,’’ JaQawn Raymond would say later in the locker room after the 90-81 deed was done. “So we just shook hands and went on about our way.
“We know what we came here to do."
They came to be the eighth No. 15 seed in history to take down a No. 2, and certainly one of the most shocking, given the pedigree of the victim.
They came to inflict upon Izzo – a master of March – what he would call one of the toughest losses of his storied career.
They came with their switching defenses and pressure to make life miserable for Denzel Valentine, who on this dark day for Sparty had more turnovers (six) than field goals (five). “I didn’t come through today," he would say afterward, "and I’ll remember that for the rest of my life."
They came to give the biggest jolt – so far – to an NCAA Tournament where the favorites have fallen like snow, taking down the team that was the national champion selection in millions of brackets.
“Nobody thought we were going to win this game," Raymond said. “It was a bracket buster."
Who out there had predicted this? Middle Tennessee coach Kermit Davis said at least one group had; the Blue Raiders had heard from a little girl back home who said her class had picked them.
“I’m sure they took it home to their mom and dad, and they laughed," Davis said. “So we got one second grader in the e-mail that had Middle Tennessee in the second round.’’
As Michigan State’s Tum Tum Nairn Jr. said, “It happened so quickly."
The Blue Raiders hit their first six shots to lead the No. 2 team in the nation 15-2. But that was a mirage, right?
They had an endless crunch time to hold the advantage against a national powerhouse. Nine times, the Spartans closed to within one possession. For 39 minutes and 19 seconds, Middle Tennessee was in front and being chased. Sooner or later, it would have to give way, right?
No. And no. Not this day, or this year.
“The thing about this tournament is you can’t worry about seeds, 2 or 15 or 7 or 1. Because if you lose you go home," Nairn said in a quiet Spartan locker room. “It doesn’t really matter when that ball goes up it’s who wants it the most."
Michigan State is far from alone. Look at what who else got knocked out.
Through the first round, a record 10 double-digit seeds pulled off upsets. Hawaii and Yale had won their first NCAA Tournament games ever, Little Rock for the first time in 30 years.
And Middle Tennessee for the first time since 1989.
Michigan State was the heavy favorite to win the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans just lost to Middle Tennessee. This is college basketball.— Jon Rothstein (@JonRothstein) March 18, 2016
”We played our ass off today, man," Giddy Potts said.
Well, that was one factor, for sure.
There was also the torrid start.
“Once we got out on that 15-2 lead," Raymond said, “you could tell by their faces and the way Coach Izzo was on the sidelines coaching they knew we were here."
Also the fearless shooting, 55.9 percent against one of the most respected defenses in the land. And the balance. Reggie Upshaw’s 21 points led, but all five starters scored double figures. This, by a team that did not have a single player average in double figures last season.
There was the rebounding and the transition defense, something Davis had told them would be absolutely essential.
There was the ability to withstand everything the frantic Spartans tried. “Our guys just answered every run," Davis said.
“They outplayed us. There’s no way I can put it any differently," Izzo said. “They deserved to win."
And then Izzo said something that sounded very much like a coach who has seen the tough end of a chaotic month, where no one is safe.
“In my wildest dreams, I didn’t think they’d hit some of the shots they hit."
But isn’t that what makes this party what it is? Just look at the winners.
When it was over, Davis said he thought of his 80-year-old father who could not be here because of his pneumonia. And he looked over at his family, including the daughter, Ally, with Down Syndrome.
And soon after he started thinking about Syracuse on Sunday.
Such is this NCAA Tournament. An unforgettable moment, always followed by a new challenge. All on a frenzied landscape, where only elementary classes know what is going to happen.