One of the most anticipated possible conference tournament finals of all will not be taking place this year, as the first two days of March are two-for-two in producing the upsets we’ve come to expect this time of year.
The latest team to come from seemingly nowhere to make noise is Hartford, a seemingly benign seventh seed in the America East tournament. The Hawks entered the tourney with a 9-22 record and had lost both regular season matchups against their quarterfinal opponent by a combined 42 points, yet stunned three-time defending champion Albany 68-59 to move into the semifinals.
Hartford raced out to a 38-21 halftime lead and never let the Great Danes make a serious challenge until getting within five in the final two minutes. The Hawks were led by Pancake Thomas, possessor of one of the greatest nicknames in the country and a second team all-conference pick who scored 16 points and hit five of Hartford’s 12 three-pointers.
Meanwhile, a tournament No. 2 seed went down for the second straight night because of an icy shooting night, particularly from the perimeter. Albany shot 33.9% and made just 6 of 27 from three-point range, one night after Atlantic Sun second seed NJIT went 2-for-27 from deep in a loss to Stetson. It’s a bitter ending in particular for Peter Hooley, a four-year senior and terrific player who beat the buzzer a year ago against Stony Brook to send the Great Danes to the NCAAs.
A rematch between Albany and Stony Brook in the final was eagerly awaited, and the two teams played two more excellent games in the regular season with each winning once. Instead, the door has been blown wide open for the Seawolves to at last get that elusive first NCAA bid. The top seed survived a nervous start to beat 8 seed Maryland-Baltimore County 86-76, and because the A-East reseeds after the quarterfinals, Stony Brook now hosts Hartford in the semis.
The other semifinal will feature a matchup of bordering states with fourth-seeded New Hampshire at No. 3 Vermont, after the Wildcats held off Binghamton 56-51 and the Catamounts rolled past Maine 99-82. Of the four remaining teams, only Vermont has been to the NCAA tourney before, meaning this league has a good chance of sending a first-time participant to the Big Dance.
- The Northeast Conference quarterfinals saw top seed Wagner ease past Robert Morris 59-50. Fairleigh Dickinson avoided becoming another 2 to go down, edging St. Francis (Pa.) 74-72, while No. 5 Mount St. Mary’s rallied from a big deficit to send St. Francis (N.Y.) to another frustrating postseason loss, 60-51. Sixth-seeded LIU also surprised No. 3 Sacred Heart 84-76. The NEC reseeds as well after the quarterfinals, so Wagner will host LIU and Mount St. Mary’s is at FDU in the semis.
- The OVC tourney opened, and it was a pair of longtime league powers winning, including one that is back on the upswing. No. 8 seed Austin Peay downed 5 seed Tennessee Tech 92-72 behind 37 points from Chris Horton. Good to see the Governors playing better again this year, and they get No. 4 Tennessee State next. Also, sixth-seeded Murray State handled Eastern Illinois 78-62 by shooting 61%, and the Racers get 3 seed Morehead State next.
- Besides conference tournament games, the performance of the night came from St. Bonaventure’s Marcus Posley. The senior guard scored 47 points, leading the Bonnies to a huge 98-90 win over Saint Joseph’s at their home away from home in Rochester, N.Y. St. Bona finished a season sweep of the Hawks. No idea how much respect the selection committee will give the Atlantic 10 this year, but the Bonnies sure seem to have played their way into an NCAA Tournament bid. And it’s been a great story for a program that has regularly been one that fans on message boards spend offseasons musing about dumping from the A-10.
- Michigan State drilled Rutgers 97-66, a result that would’ve been notable for nothing except Bryn Forbes scored 33 points by hitting a Big Ten record 11 three-pointers. Again, a reminder: Cleveland State could’ve had Forbes, Trey Lewis and Anton Grady this year.
- Impressive: Miami winning with ease at Notre Dame 68-50. West Virginia took care of Texas Tech 90-68, blowing it open after it felt like the Red Raiders were hanging around. Also, USC got back on track with a 81-70 blowout of Oregon State that was not as close as the final score.
- Not impressive, or leaving some with bitter beer face: Alabama losing 62-61 at home to Arkansas plus Pittsburgh not looking good on the road again in a 65-61 loss at Virginia Tech.
- A bizarre season at UNLV seems to have no end. The Runnin’ Rebels have now lost freshman Derrick Jones after he was declared ineligible by the NCAA after his testing score on the ACT was cancelled by the testing company. Jones was averaging 11.5 points per game.
- The action starts early with the Big South tourney tipping off with three first-round games, opening with No. 8 Longwood against No. 9 Charleston Southern in the early afternoon.
- Also opening with three more first-round games is the MAAC tournament in Albany, where the matchups include another meeting of longtime rivals Canisius and Niagara in the 7/10 game.
- Events continue in the Atlantic Sun, MVC, OVC and Patriot League, highlighted by the A-Sun semifinals, where top seed North Florida hosts 4 seed Florida Gulf Coast and the other semifinal matches upstarts with sixth-seeded Lipscomb an unlikely host against 7 seed Stetson.
- A host of bubble teams are in action. Among them: Temple is at home against dangerous Memphis (7 p.m. EST, ESPNU), South Carolina hosts Georgia (7 p.m., ESPN2), Connecticut travels to SMU (9 p.m., ESPN2), Cincinnati is at tough Houston (9 p.m., CBSSN) and Stanford goes to Arizona State (11 p.m., FS1).
- A matchup of top 25 teams features newly ranked California at Arizona (9 p.m., ESPN).
- Hawaii can clinch the Big West regular season title and the top seed in the league tourney if it can win at UC Davis.
Enjoy your Thursday.