Three more NCAA Tournament bids went out on Sunday, all to familiar faces. One had a familiar ending, while another nearly had a quirk in the end result.
It was six years ago that Ali Farokhmanesh was one of the newest names born in the month of March, hitting a big three-pointer to sink No. 1 seed Kansas and lift Northern Iowa into the Sweet 16. The Panthers have been a steady program over the years, especially under Ben Jacobson, as they have finished in the top half of the Missouri Valley Conference for 13 straight years. They are headed to the NCAA Tournament for the fourth time in his tenure now, though it didn’t look like it would happen for much of the season.
The Panthers weren’t a contender for the top spot like they have been in some recent seasons. They started off 2-6, including a pair of home losses by double digits. They didn’t look like the team that beat North Carolina and Iowa State during non-conference play. But starting with a win at Bradley, they won six in a row, capped by a 53-50 win at Wichita State that reminded you that they beat the Tar Heels and Cyclones, and finished the regular season winning nine of ten.
The pesky Panthers continued to look like the giant killers, beating the very improved Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals, then making Wichita State have to sweat out the next week by knocking off the Shockers in overtime before Sunday. There, they were in control against Evansville into the second half, but the Purple Aces gradually rallied. It was the last chance for stars like D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius, two of the best players in the conference’s history, and they weren’t about to go quietly.
With the game tied at 54, Wes Washpun, who topped 1,000 career points earlier in the game, dribbled and put up a jumper from the top of the key. It took one bounce and dropped in as time expired, and the Panthers had won a big game on a magical jumper once again.
UNC Asheville has been to the NCAA Tournament three times previously, so they aren’t a stranger to it. For a while on Sunday, it didn’t look like they would make it four trips, as they trailed by nine at halftime against Winthrop, who was making their third straight appearance in the title game and had lost the last two.
The Bulldogs took the lead for good over eight minutes into the second half, but never really shook the Eagles until the final minutes. Winthrop got within 64-61 with over three minutes left, then UNC Asheville scored the next eight points to put the game away, winning 77-68. With just two seniors on the roster and a freshman, Dwayne Sutton (25 points in the final), being named tournament MVP, the Bulldogs look like they will contend again soon.
Lastly, the Atlantic Sun championship game could have had the rare circumstance of the winning team not going anywhere, and the losing team would not be going in their place. Stetson was allowed to compete in the conference tournament despite being ineligible due to a low APR score. They took on Florida Gulf Coast, a school famous for “Dunk City” a few years ago under current USC head coach Andy Enfield. That team is but a distant memory, as redshirt senior Filip Cvjeticanin is the only ycurrent Eagle who was a member of that team.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is that the Eagles are a force to be reckoned with in that conference. It took overtime, but a late block allowed them to hold off Stetson 80-78 to take home the championship and return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since the great Sweet 16 run.
Conference Tournament Round-up
The CAA semifinals were a pair of good ones, and both were rematches from a year ago. Neither game could match the first of them from last year, but that was highly unlikely anyway. Hofstra beat William & Mary in what was still a great game, before UNCW took advantage of a cold stretch for Northeastern in the second half and then held off the Huskies 73-70.
Quarterfinal action in the Horizon League saw Green Bay beat Milwaukee 70-61 and Wright State beat Detroit 82-72.
In the MAAC Tournament semifinals in Albany, Monmouth cruised past Fairfield 76-63 and Iona handled Siena 81-70, setting up a rubber match between the two teams who famously brawled after their meeting in New Rochelle earlier this season.
In the Patriot League semifinals, No. 9 Holy Cross remained on a roll, holding Army to 22.6 percent shooting to blow past the Black Knghts 60-38 to become the lowest seed to make the championship game in league history, while Lehigh got 17 points and 10 rebounds from Player of the Year Tim Kempton to cruise past American 78-62 and will host the Crusaders on Wednesday night.
The Southern Conference had their semifinals, which saw Chattanoota edge Western Carolina 73-69 and East Tennessee State beat Furman 84-76 to advance to Monday night’s championship game in Asheville, NC.
In the second half of the Summit League quarterfinals, both lower seeds won as North Dakota State used a big second half and an 18-point, 11-rebound outing from Dexter Werner to beat IUPUI 60-45, then Denver got 25 points from freshman Joe Rosga and held off Omaha 78-70 after building a 15-point halftime lead.
In final regular season games of note, Cincinnati beat SMU 61-54, Indiana handily beat Maryland 80-62 and Purdue got 27 points from Caleb Swanagan to beat Wisconsin 91-80 despite 30 points from Nigel Hayes.
UCLA guard Bryce Alford took a blow to the jaw late in Saturday’s loss to Oregon State, but should be ready to go in the Pac-12 Tournament. The junior had a CT scan after the game that showed no facial fracture, and while he will be re-evaluated on Monday, there is every reason to think he will play when the Bruins, the No. 10 seed in the tournament, open up against cross-town rival USC on Wednesday in Las Vegas.
Three more NCAA Tournament automatic bids go out tonight to highlight the action.
- The CAA championship game features the two teams who tied for the regular season title in Hofstra and UNCW in Baltimore.
- The MAAC championship game features two rivals who have had some battles this season as Iona takes on Monmouth in Albany.
- The Southern Conference championship will feature the top two regular season teams as East Tennessee State takes on Chattanooga in Asheville.
- In the America East semifinals, Stony Brook hosts Hartford and Vermont hosts New Hampshire.
- The Horizon League has semifinal action with Green Bay taking on top seed Valparaiso and Wright State taking on Oakland.
- The MAC Tournament gets under way with Bowling Green at Kent State, Miami (Ohio) at Ball State, Toledo at Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan at Northern Illinois. The winners advance to Cleveland for the quarterfinals on Thursday.
- First round action in the MEAC Tournament has Delaware State taking on Savannah State and Coppin State facing North Carolina A&T in Norfolk.
- In the Summit League semifinals, North Dakota State takes on IPFW, then Denver meets South Dakota State in Sioux Falls.
- The West Coast Conference semifinals feature Pepperdine taking on Saint Mary’s and Brigham Young taking on Gonzaga.