Has there ever been a more exhilarating NCAA Tournament? We look forward to March Madness every year, and this set of games more than surpassed expectations. The collection of Kentucky games alone might’ve provided more drama than some past years’ tournaments combined. It’s been an embarrassment of riches and it’s sad to see the season go — the NBA playoffs are on the horizon, and after that some of us (myself included) are going to need to talk ourselves into baseball and the World Cup to pass the time between now and sweet, sweet football.
But I digress. This tournament was fantastic, and these were the games that stood out for me the most:
UConn 89, St. Joseph’s 81 (OT)
It’s not always acknowledged in “legacy” discussions, but there’s such an element of randomness to sports. UConn’s national championship run almost seems inevitable in retrospect — Jim Calhoun looks like a genius for saying that this could all somehow happen, Shabazz Napier how-you-like-us-now’ed the NCAA, and Kevin Ollie’s name will come up in every NBA head coaching vacancy from now until eternity (unless and until he bolts) because these are the sorts of things that happen when you win a title.
But, in the first round of the tournament (I’m never gonna refer to the play-in games as such), the Huskies found themselves down to St. Joe’s with under a minute remaining. Shabazz Napier missed a lay-up, Amida Brimah grabbed the board, and then converted an and-one. UConn won handily in OT and the rest is history.
Who knows how the rest of the dominoes fall in the tourney if St. Joe’s had managed to squeak by?
Mercer 78, Duke 71
Even though the most major consequence of this game was that it decimated everybody’s shot at winning a billion dollars from Warren Buffett so damn quickly — Mercer would lose to Tennessee in the next round by 20 points — it exemplified what is so awesome about the NCAA Tournament. Few things unite the masses more than seeing Coach K and Duke get poached by a Cinderella, and Mercer came back from five down with 4:33 to play to do it. Listen to the crowd roar at this late bucket:
Stephen F Austin 77, VCU 75 (OT)
This first round game was, again, relatively inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but the way it all went down was bonkers. VCU was up four in the closing seconds. Pretty much the only thing in the universe that would’ve prevented them from winning that game is if they fouled a three-point shooter and the ball went in (and then lost in overtime). And, well …
Wisconsin 85, Oregon 77
This game was unlike any other crowd I’ve ever been a part of. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin was down 14 just before the half, but came roaring back after the break. It’s a little bit strange, but Final Four berths are almost celebrated as much as winning the national title. Bo Ryan and the Badgers cut down the net, and they’ll get a banner in the Kohl Center and everybody affiliated with the program will remember this season as a major success. Can you imagine similar scenarios for teams that lose in NFL conference championship games?
Wisconsin would go on to blow out Baylor, win an overtime game against Arizona that was marred by questionable officiating, and come within an onions three from Aaron Harrison (more on that in a minute) away from reaching the final. It was a great run, even if the pit of my stomach has remained clenched since Saturday evening, like I went through a break-up or lost a loved one. Sports’ll do that to you.
Kentucky vs. Wichita State, Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin
What’s there to say about that Kentucky run that hasn’t already been written? If they had mustered yet another late comeback against UConn last night, their run would have felt inevitable, as if it were propelled by dark magical forces that chose to intervene in sporting events for whatever reason. As it turned out, they were only granted a finite amount of wishes.
The Wichita State game seems so much longer than 2.5 weeks ago. Kentucky survived a 31-point onslaught from Cleanthony Early; they were down five points with under five minutes remaining before pulling it together and converting on numerous trips to the free throw line. Against Louisville, they were down at a similar point in the second half. Aaron Harrison hit a three-pointer with 40 seconds remaining to give the Wildcats a two-point lead. As you know, it wouldn’t be the last huge shot he’d hit.
When people look back on this tournament, they’re going to think about Kentucky first. Those deep Aaron Harrison three-pointers to beat Louisville, Michigan, and Wisconsin will be like Carlton Fisk’s iconic homer in the 1975 World Series; it’ll always take an extra moment to remember that they didn’t actually win it all.
No matter your team affiliation, it was a great few weeks to be a sports fan.
Honorable mentions: Texas-Arizona State, North Carolina-Iowa State, Harvard-Cincinnati, Dayton-Syracuse, Michigan State-Virginia.
[Photos via Getty Images; Harrison overlay by USA Today Sports]