This is why they call it March Mayhem.
MTSU and Vanderbilt are two schools some 30 miles apart. Their basketball teams authored a tale of opposite endings in the NCAA Tournament Thursday.
Middle Tennessee proved it very much belonged as it beat Minnesota 81-72 in a first round game. The Blue Raiders stood tall against the Big Ten team.
Vanderbilt’s second half comeback against Northwestern came up short in a 68-66 heartbreaker. It gave the Wildcats their first victory in the school’s first NCAA Tournament appearance in school history.
The Wildcats were celebrating in their locker room like you can’t imagine. Football coach Pat Fitzgerald even joined in on the party, pounding players on their back. Earlier in the party, Coach Doug Collins was seen dancing in the midst of his celebrating team.
In the Vanderbilt locker room they wished they had one play back. Matthew Fisher-Davis mistakenly fouled a Wildcat player before he crossed midcourt after Vanderbilt had a 66-65 lead with 26.1 seconds remaining. Guard Bryant McIntosh buried both free throws to give Northwestern a 67-66 lead.
Vanderbilt junior Riley LaChance drove in for a layup to go up 66-65 after Northwestern buried two free throws. It wouldn’t hold up.
As Northwestern’s McIntosh brought the ball up court, Fisher-Davis reached out and fouled McIntosh before he crossed half-court. McIntosh nailed two free throws and a LaChance 3-point shot attempt was no good.
While Fisher-Davis’ mental mistake will be with him forever, Vanderbilt Coach Bryce Drew tried to take the blame off of his player.
“We’re not in this position without him this season,’’ Drew said. “This was a story of our season. We were down 15 (points) and came back to get two leads.’’
Vanderbilt became the first team to get in the NCAA Tournament with 15 losses. The Commodores hurt now but they don’t have anything to be ashamed of. Quite the opposite. While previous Vanderbilt teams in recent year fell off down the stretch, this team rallied late in the season and SEC Tournament. They were a dangerous team coming into the NCAA Tournament.
While the Commodores’ loss will linger, Middle Tennessee State will march on. A 12-seed team that the selection committee handed them was totally off the mark.
Blue Raiders Coach Kermit Davis has taken this program light years forward since he came on campus.
His team is just that – a team. They wouldn’t have come this far if that were not the case. They showed 4-seed Minnesota they belonged.
They built a double-digit lead against Minnesota, but had to fight for their lives in the second half. The Gophers rallied behind a 15-3 run in less than six minutes.
Veterans Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw denied the Gophers with some clutch play in crunch time and the Blue Raiders left with an 81-72 win under their belts. It’s the second straight year they disposed of nationally recognized teams, having taken down No. 2 seed Michigan State in last year’s tournament.
“We beat a really good Minnesota team,’’ Davis said after the game. “We belong on a national stage.’’
The NCAA Tournament selection committee should look in the mirror and ask themselves how in the world they gave MTSU a 12-seed. They looked at Conference USA and thought no non-power conference team could win against a quality team in the tournament.
Davis has built a basketball power, no matter the opponents. You don’t wake up one day and have a 31-4 record.
Minnesota made its runs, but MTSU’s team stood its ground. The Blue Raiders refused to fold.
Their next obstacle is 4-seed Butler, a program that once was trying to prove it could play with the big boys. They are a good match-up with MTSU.
There is a lot of basketball left. Every game has a winner and a loser.
Lessons in life are taught.
Joe Biddle is a wkrn.com sports columnist. He is also a member of the Tennessee Sports Hall of Fame. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.