Syracuse survived a scare, Harvard made a cameo appearance and defending champion Connecticut lost on a first full day of the men’s college basketball tournament that featured no overtimes, little drama and two mild upsets.
Favorites won all but two of the 16 games yesterday in the National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament, which continues today with 16 more games.
Regional No. 1 seeds Kentucky and Syracuse advanced to weekend play. Kentucky (33-2) opened a 32-point lead before settling for an 81-66 win against Western Kentucky. Syracuse trailed with less than 10 minutes remaining before pulling out a 72-65 victory over North Carolina-Asheville.
Harvard made its first appearance in the tournament since 1946, rallying to within five points in the closing minutes before losing 79-70 to Vanderbilt.
“We felt like we belonged here,” Kyle Casey, who had 13 points for the Crimson, told reporters. “We got real close but just couldn’t finish it out.”
Fans accustomed to wild comebacks and late-game heroics in the 68-team tournament had to settle for Virginia Commonwealth University’s latest display of beating the odds.
VCU pulled off the first upset with a 62-59 victory against fifth-seeded Wichita State. VCU reached the Final Four as an 11th seed last year and is ranked 12th in the South Regional this time. At night, 11th-seeded Colorado defeated sixth-seeded Nevada-Las Vegas.
Connecticut lost 77-64 to Iowa State in a South Regional game in Louisville, Kentucky.
Defending Champion Gone
“It’s very disappointing to end the season this way,” said Huskies coach Jim Calhoun, whose team became the first defending national champion to lose its opening game since UCLA in 1996.
The other half of the field plays today, with West Regional top seed Michigan State taking on Long Island and Midwestern Regional No. 1 seed North Carolina playing against Vermont. Duke plays Lehigh in the South Regional.
All of yesterday’s winners will play again tomorrow.
In the South, Kentucky will face Iowa State, VCU will play Indiana and Baylor will meet Colorado. In the West, it will be New Mexico against Louisville and Murray State against Marquette in the next round.
The East’s games tomorrow will be Syracuse against Kansas State, Vanderbilt playing Wisconsin and Gonzaga challenging Ohio State.
The closest to a major upset yesterday came when Syracuse risked becoming the first No. 1-seeded team to lose to a No. 16 seed. The Orange (32-2) benefited from a controversial ruling in the final minute to pull out the win.
Syracuse Survives Scare
Syracuse led 68-65 with 21 seconds left when an inbounds pass went off the hands of Brandon Triche. Officials called a foul on UNC Asheville’s Chris Stephenson and Triche hit a pair of free throws to push Syracuse’s lead to five points.
Kris Joseph added two free throws with two seconds left to seal the win for Syracuse, which had trailed 34-30 at halftime. UNC Asheville was the seventh No. 16 seed to lead a No. 1-seeded team at the half of an NCAA tournament game.
Syracuse’s close call came two days after 7-foot center Fab Melo, the team’s leading rebounder and Big East conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, was ruled ineligible to play in the tournament.
Harvard Rally Halted
“You have to give Asheville a tremendous amount of credit,” Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said in a televised interview. “We made a couple good plays when we needed to. I think the first game of the tournament sometimes goes like this. We’re going to have to play a lot better.”
Harvard, in the field for the second time in school history, held a 20-17 lead against Vanderbilt before getting outscored 20-3 over a six-minute stretch that lasted into the second half.
The Ivy League champions trailed by as many as 18 points in the second half before pulling within five points with less than two minutes left. Harvard (26-5) couldn’t get any closer against the Commodores, who last week upset Kentucky to win the Southeastern Conference tournament.