Providence (11) – 53
University of Kentucky (6) – 61
Montana State (14) – 65
Kansas State (3) – 77
A lot of folks in the media section were surprised that Greensboro didn’t draw Duke for the first two rounds of play in the NCAA Tournament. Duke often gets favorable treatment in this tourney — they play in Greensboro every time it’s here, it seems, practically a home game for them the team with an asterisk next to its name. But not this year.
Kentucky, a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament and a perennial Final Four powerhouse, is close enough. Fans felt at home in that similar shade of blue as their team went up against 11-seed Providence. The Friars are no pushover — they made it all the way to the Sweet 16 last year, and the fact that they flamed out in the Big East Tournament only added to their incentive to knock out a high-seeded team.
They held strong for most of the first half against their better-ranked opponent. The period saw seven lead changes and four ties, with Providence leaving few opportunities on the table, scoring 11 points off 6 turnovers. Kentucky came alive in the last minutes, opening up a 10-point lead by half’s end that was cut to 7 after a 3-pointer by Providence’s Jared Bynum, his second of the half. The biggest first-half differential in the tale of the tape was in rebounds: Kentucky nearly doubled Providence, 25-13, in that category, with 13 coming from Kentucky’s Oscar Tshiebwe. The half ended 38-31, Kentucky’s favor, with two Wildcats, Jacob Toppin and Antonio Reeves, responsible for 26 of those points.
The second half was characterized by a lot of effort for little result. By the midway point, both teams were shooting about 20 percent form the floor. And while there was a sense that Kentucky could break this one open at any moment, but that moment never came.
This arduous second half was punctuated by moments on the big screen of 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson’s unholy upset of 1-seed Purdue, the biggest upset of the day. The Kentucky fans loved it, chanting “FDU!” as their own team struggled to find their groove.
In the end, Kentucky did as it should, finishing off Providence in a low-scoring scrap, 61-53.
Reeves put in 21 points in the win, but Kentucky’s Tshiebwe gave the performance of the night. After leading all of Division I in rebounds during the regular season, he nabbed 24 before the buzzer sounded, along with his 8 points. More on him on Sunday.
The last game of the evening saw the Bobcats of 14-seed Montana State take on the Wildcats of 3-seed Kansas State, and the whole thing is very confusing. Before the tipoff, 1-seed Purdue got knocked off by 16-seed Fairleigh Dickinson, only the second time that has ever happened in NCAA Tournament history.
Upsets like that tend to be contagious in March.
So while Kansas State got the 3-seed, they underperformed in the Big 12 Tournament, Montana State finished second in the Big Sky Conference and won the tournament outright, which is how they got here.
Montana State kept it close for most of the first half, with four lead changes and four ties before Kansas State started to pull ahead on scoring from Keyontae Johnson and Markquis Nowell, who each would put in 10 points in the first half. On the other side, RaeQuan Battle scored 13, including 2-2 from 3-point land. A late foul shot kept Montana State in the game, 34-28 at the buzzer.
The second half featured steady scoring from both teams, but without a lot of drama. Kansas State kept their cushion, answering every move with points of their own, staying comfortable but working for it.
Battle turned in a heroic effort in a losing battle, logging 26 points before all was said and done, with one more 3-pointer in the second half. On the winning side, Nowell registered a double-double with 17 points and 13 assists while Johnson claimed the high-scorer with 18. The fans had mostly emptied out by the time this one was through, and the ones that were left were more interested in the Florida Atlantic-Memphis game, which Florida Atlantic won in the final seconds in a minor upset.
But this one eventually went the way it should. Final score 77-65.
On Sunday, we’ll see Kansas State play the University of Kentucky and Xavier face Pitt.
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