<strong>SALT LAKE CITY—</strong> When the 2013 NCAA tournament kicked off at the Energy Solutions Arena Thursday, I was expecting to see some good games. The 8-9 matchup between Pittsburgh and Wichita State had the potential to be a close game, and Belmont was a trendy pick as an 11-seed to topple the Arizona Wildcats.
The tournament slate also featured games between a couple David and Goliaths, which seemed to offer less than exciting matchups. The No. 1 team in the country Gonzaga was taking on Southern, while the 3-seed in the bracket, New Mexico, was taking on 14-seed Harvard who had dismissed its top two players before the season even began.
In typical March Madness fashion, however, none of the games followed conventional wisdom.
The result of the first game wasn’t all that shocking (cheesy pun intended), but the Shockers handled an anemic Pitt offense as Wichita State pulled away for a double digit victory. I was expecting another yawner in the second game of the day with the Zags facing the Jags, and when the Bulldogs opened the game on a 7-0 run, I started to pull up cbssports.com to see what other games might be on.
The pesky Jaguars – who hail from Baton Rouge – put together an 8-0 run of their own though, starting a theme that would remain consistent throughout the contest. Behind some hot shooting, Southern maintained a small lead for a couple of minutes, before the No. 1 seed regained control. The Zags were unable to run away though, running up the tunnel with only a 34-31 lead at the half.
Southern opened the second half with three consecutive 3-pointers – they made 10-of-23 (43.5 percent) for the game – the last of which pulled the Jaguars to within one of the Zags. However, at that point, the Bulldogs, led by National Player of the Year candidate Kelly Olynyk went on 11-1 to build an 11 point lead.
Once again the Jaguars fought back though, and as they continued to inch closer to the Zags, the crowd at the Energy Solutions Arena got more and more electric. Only five times in the past 20 years has a 16-seed even come within single digits of defeating a No. 1 seed. With 4:08 left to play, the crowd reached a fever-pitch, as the possibility of seeing a 16-seed defeat a 1-seed for the first time became a distinct possibility. Southern capped a 13-2 run with a pair of free throws to tie the game at 54.
In the end, the monumental upset wasn’t meant to be, as Gonzaga regained its composure and Kevin Pangos and Gary Bell Jr. each knocked down shots from beyond the arc to propel the Bulldogs into the round of 32. It was an incredible game and an incredible atmosphere.
After a quick clearing of the ESA in between sessions, the Arizona – Belmont game tipped off. The first 10 minutes of that game were really interesting, as fans were still filing back in and the arena was nearly empty at the start of the game. Once again though, a game I thought would be close turned into a blowout as Belmont never really found its shot.
Salt Lake City saved the best for last though.
The Beehive State offered the biggest upset of the tournament so far late Thursday evening as the boys from the Ivy League sent the Mountain West Conference champion New Mexico Lobos packing. Harvard led most of the game, led at the half, and withstood a push down the stretch to pull off the stunner and pick up the first NCAA tournament win in program history.
It was an exciting conclusion to a fabulous day of college basketball in a state that has had some memorable games over the years, including maybe the most famous college basketball game ever – the 1979 National Championship game which featured Michigan State’s Magic Johnson and Indiana State’s Larry Bird.
I may have just missed on seeing history Thursday, but the tournament will return to Salt Lake City in the future, and there’s always that chance. You never know when the madness in March will strike.