If you’re looking for one night that epitomized just why conference tournaments-and league tournament title games in particular-are such fun, Monday was it.
Three tournament finals, all played in front of raucous crowds (even if one of them will forever be debated as to whether it should’ve been played there), all presumably pairing up two teams that needed to win to make the NCAA Tournament or else. It was ultimate desperation, ultimate drama, and reminded us why March tournament basketball is the best basketball there is, without comparison.
The Southern Conference and Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference finals were everything one could’ve asked, too. Both games went down to the final seconds, and could’ve gone even longer. In the end, East Tennessee State outlasted UNC Greensboro 79-74 to win the SoCon title, while Iona held off Siena 87-86 in overtime to win the MAAC.
East Tennessee State has made a quick rise under coach Steve Forbes, who needed just two years to get the school back to the NCAA Tournament. The Buccaneers got through a tough Southern Conference and defeated a UNCG team they had just lost to a week earlier. ETSU has been a perfect fit returning to the SoCon, and the league was rewarded by its return and by a good year for the league with a crowd of more than 6,000 at the tourney final in Asheville.
Iona, meanwhile, did what top seed Monmouth could not, defeating Siena in the MAAC final in a road game. The Gaels and Saints went back and forth all night and were tied 16 different times, including eight times in the last three minutes of regulation and overtime. On a veteran team, it was freshman E.J. Crawford who had maybe the biggest basket, scoring inside with 28 seconds left in OT to put the Gaels ahead for good. This one will go in the instant classic category, among a long history of terrific finals in the Metro Atlantic.
Both ETSU and Iona have another thing in common, with head coaches who spent time as head coaches in the small college ranks. Forbes was an NCAA Division I assistant for 15 years before getting the job at East Tennessee State, but Forbes also has spent time as a head coach at the junior college level, most recently at Northwest Florida State, where he was a two-time NJCAA Division I national runner-up. Iona’s Tim Cluess also was a Juco coach for one year and then spent four years at NCAA D-II C.W. Post before being hired to coach the Gaels, where he has been a smashing success and will make his fourth trip to the NCAA Tournament in six years.
- The third tournament final game was in the CAA, where No. 1 seed UNC Wilmington was outstanding in a 78-69 win over No. 2 College of Charleston, shooting 52.8% to clinch its second straight NCAA berth. The Seahawks are very capable of causing more than one team trouble in the NCAAs if they shoot like that next week.
- The night also was marked by four other conferences playing their semifinals. Most prominently, the West Coast Conference will get a third helping of Gonzaga and Saint Mary’s after the Bulldogs defeated Santa Clara 77-68 and the Gaels rocked BYU 81-50. The Zags are looking a bit vulnerable and just might be ripe for the picking this time.
- The Horizon League tournament has been beyond bizarre. The championship game is set: it will be fourth-seeded Northern Kentucky against No. 10 Wisconsin-Milwaukee. UNK defeated 9 seed Youngstown State 84-74 in one semi, and then Milwaukee topped No. 6 Illinois-Chicago 74-68 in the second to move to 11-23 this year.
- The America East final is set, and it should be fun. Top seed Vermont dominated New Hampshire 74-41 and will host the title game, but it faces a formidable opponent. Albany is back in the title game after a one-year absence, having knocked out defending champion and 2 seed Stony Brook 63-56. The Great Danes will go for their fourth A-East tourney crown in five years.
- The Summit League is yet another tourney where the top seed is gone, after No. 1 South Dakota was stung by No. 4 South Dakota State 74-71. The Jackrabbits will face 3 seed Nebraska-Omaha, which romped past No. 7 IUPUI 90-62.
- The MAC tourney opened with four first round games at home sites, and all four hosts won. As so often has been the case this year, the most notable game involved Central Michigan, the 11 seed which lost at No. 6 Kent State 116-106 in overtime despite 41 points from Marcus Keene.
- The MEAC tourney tipped off with Maryland-Eastern Shore defeating North Carolina A&T 74-67 and Howard over Coppin State 79-73.
- In addition to the Horizon, Summit and WCC finals, the Northeast Conference also decides its champion, with No. 1 seed Mount St. Mary’s hosting upstart St. Francis (Pa.), the upstart No. 4 seed (7 p.m. Eastern, ESPN2). The Red Flash is looking for its first NCAA bid in 26 years. Also, these two in most tourneys would’ve faced off in a semifinal, but the NEC reseeds teams after the first round, which resulted in the Mountaineers taking on No. 7 Robert Morris and St. Francis facing 3 seed Wagner in the semis.
- The day starts with the opening games of the ACC Tournament, which has become virtually a weeklong affair. Most notably, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech can’t afford losses, with the Demon Deacons taking on Boston College (2 p.m., ESPN2) and Tech against Pittsburgh (7 p.m., ESPNU).
- The SWAC Tournament starts with in Houston with quarterfinal play. Top seed Texas Southern meets No. 8 Alabama State, while a good 3/6 game has Southern against Jackson State.
- The Big Sky Tournament opens in Reno, Nev., with three games, including Tyler Hall and sixth-seeded Montana State against Southern Utah.
- The MEAC continues with Bethune-Cookman against Delaware State and South Carolina State facing Florida A&M.
Have a great Tuesday.