by Anthony Harrison
This is not a 16-seed team.
That thought fluttered through many people’s minds during halftime of last night’s Carolina-Florida Gulf Coast University NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament game in Raleigh’s PNC Arena.
FGCU — the program infamous for dismantling No. 2-seed Georgetown University in 2013 — looked like the best candidate for the inevitable possibility of the greatest upset in tournament history. They played No. 1-seed UNC-Chapel Hill’s game: Play for quick twos inside; don’t rely on threes; tear down rebounds. They seemingly mastered it.
In fact, FGCU out-rebounded the Heels by seven in the first half — not a bad stat when working against Carolina’s All-American forward, Brice Johnson.
Also, if it hadn’t been for a traveling call on a made three-pointer — one hotly contested by the traveling FGCU faithful, Dukies, State fans, general Carolina haters and those hoping to witness history — the Eagles would have led going into the locker room. Instead, Carolina held a one-point lead, but Dunk City had all the momentum.
Chapel Hill head coach Roy Williams must’ve given his guys one heck of a cuss-free halftime speech, because when the Heels stepped out, the close game morphed into business as usual.
In the first four minutes of the second half, Carolina held the Eagles to three points while going on a 13-point tear, bookended by cold-blooded threes from guards Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson.
As rowdy as the FGCU fans had been in the first half, the healthy Carolina contingent turned PNC Arena into a surrogate Dean Dome, deafeningly invoking their infamous call-and-response chant, “Tar — HEELS!” across the stadium.
After FGCU forward Antravious Simmons caught his fourth foul, the second half belonged to the Heels. Johnson knocked down Eagle jumpers left and right. Carolina guards slashed into the paint for layups. Team effort equalized the rebound deficit and left it in the dust.
Carolina looked like the deserving kings of the East as they strolled away with their 83-67 victory over one of the most dangerous 16s ever selected by the NCAA.
Midwest Region No. 1 seed University of Virginia didn’t give their bottom-dwelling opponents, the Hampton University Pirates, such leeway.
Hampton started off fine. Their strategy seemed thus: Establish an early lead by hitting threes and make the Cavaliers work to get back into the game.
Unfortunately, after two back-to-back successes by Hampton guard Quinton Chievous, the Pirates didn’t receive many lucky bounces on the long shots, and their tenuous lead slipped after UVA forward Anthony Gill made a steal and took the fast break alone for an easy layup.
The Wahoos tightened up and didn’t look back. Abusing their size advantage in definitively proving their defensive prowess, they held their opponents to 21 points in the first half while nearly doubling that total on their own part. A depressing second half for the Pirates led to a final score of 81-45.
UVA will face impressive No. 9-seed Butler University.
Cinderella darlings from a few tournaments past, the Bulldogs showed they maybe aren’t done busting brackets in their win against the No.8-seed Texas Tech Red Raiders.
For their part, the Red Raiders attacked Butler in the first half. They contested every pass and picked many steals, and their shooting matched their oppressive defense.
But the ’Dogs matched their competition on both sides of the court. The largely neutral peanut gallery cheered both sides on like viewing a prize fight.
The defensive bout resulted in a halftime tally of 30-28, with Butler’s jaws locked onto the lead after guard Kellen Dunham slipped in a three right before the shot clock expired with 20 seconds remaining on the game clock; Tech’s hurried attempt to tie it up in vain.
Ties and tiny lead changes kept spectators on edge for most of the second half, but with 8:30 left on the clock, previously quiet Butler swingman Kelan Martin nailed a fast-break three, breaking the 48-48 tie. Next possession, same result. Tech called time out attempting to stop the hemorrhaging, but Martin’s blood flowed fast; out of the timeout, he made a steal and took it to the house with a dunk.
Eight points, 49 seconds, one man — a game-changer.
Martin later picked up an old-fashioned three-point play off his own steal, settling for 11 points and seven rebounds, and Butler recorded a solid 71-61 win. Their finish against this solid Texas Tech team should prime them for the greater defensive challenge posed by the waiting Cavaliers.
To end the night, Nos. 8- and 9-seeded University of Southern California and Providence College played a close game of clinical, relatively boring basketball, with Providence besting the Trojans 70-69.
The Friars face the Tar Heels in the second round on Saturday.