Let’s take a ride through the first week of conference tournaments. Please make sure your seat belt is fastened and keep your hands inside the car.
Drexel won the Colonial for its first NCAA Tournament bid in 25 years. The 12-7 Dragons were only seeded sixth in the tournament, but so what? Elon, the team they beat for the title, was eighth. Yep, No. 6 vs. No 8, now there’s a conference championship game you don’t see every day. By the way, Drexel played only three games the entire month of February because of COVID protocols. The Dragons just won that many in three days.
Oral Roberts blew a 25-point halftime lead in the Summit League but recovered in the last minute to edge North Dakota State. It’s been 13 years since the Golden Eagles were in the NCAA Tournament. They were led by Summit tournament MVP Max Abmas, the biochemistry chemical major who played all 120 minutes over three nights.
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See those guys from Cleveland State down on the court doing snow angels in the confetti? Want to know why? Look at the Vikings’ timeline . . .
Nov. 5: Picked to finish seventh in the Horizon League. Not surprising for a program that averaged 22 losses the past five seasons.
Dec. 6: Endured the nightmare of all nightmares at Ohio, getting outscored 40-0 in one stretch to be on the very, very wrong end of an NCAA record. The 101-46 loss was part of an 0-3 Cleveland State start.
March 2: Outlasted Purdue Fort Wayne 108-104 in three overtimes in the Horizon League quarterfinals, with the help of a little magic: A banked-in 3-pointer by Algevon Eichelberger to save the day at the end of the second overtime. Until that moment, Eichelberger was 0-for-2 in 3-point attempts — for the season.
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Tuesday night: Rolled past Oakland 80-69 for the Horizon League tournament championship and their first NCAA Tournament bid in 12 years. Then the 19-7 Vikings celebrated in an empty Indiana Farmers’ Coliseum, which they might see again soon, since it’s one of the sites for the tournament next week in Indianapolis. “We’re not the same team that we were at Ohio,” coach Dennis Gates said Tuesday night. Yeah, we noticed. Cleveland State is 19-4 since that tough start. But then, look at the Oakland team the Vikings beat. The Golden Grizzlies began the season 0-9 and ended up in the league championship game. They won a quarterfinal overtime game even though Youngstown State had one player with 30 points and another with a triple-double. The same round, top-seeded Wright State was 24 points up on Milwaukee with 6:26 left, at home, and somehow lost 94-92 in overtime. “Unbelievable,” Milwaukee coach Pat Baldwin said. But was he talking about his team or his league?
Appalachian State hadn’t put together four victories in a row against conference opponents since 2015. They just did that in four days to win the Sun Belt for their first NCAA Tournament bid in 21 years. The journey went from a 67-60 win over Arkansas-Little Rock, to blowing an eight-point lead in the last 32 seconds of regulation but beating top-seeded Texas State in overtime, then getting past Coastal Carolina the next night in overtime again, and finally clinching the title over Georgia State, with 32 points from tournament Most Outstanding Player Michael Almonacy. He was in Division II last season with Southern New Hampshire.
No wonder coach Dustin Kearns was fighting back tears in his post-game press conference. “It’s been a long time,” he said, “but we did it.”
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Morehead State started the season 4-6 but then won 19 of the next 20, the most recent 86-71 over No. 1 seed Belmont to in the Ohio Valley Conference tournament championship game. That left Belmont with a shiny 26-4 record, hoping for love from the NCAA selection committee. Don’t count on it.
In the America East, UMass Lowell came from 16 points behind to beat No 1 seed UMBC 79-77 to get to the conference title game for the first time in history. That wasn’t to be confused with Hartford shooting 63 percent to dump No. 2 seed Vermont 71-65. So UMass Lowell and Hartford will play Saturday for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, which neither program has ever seen before. It’s the first time in history neither of the top two seeds made the America East championship game.
Navy was 15-2 and top seed in the Patriot League, faced Loyola Maryland, 4-10 and seeded ninth. Loyola won 76-68, with Navy missing two starters due to COVID protocols.
Mount St. Mary’s had games postponed or cancelled 11 times his season, but when the Mountaineers finally got to play, look what happened. They took out No. 1 seed Wagner in the Northeast, then No. 2 seed Bryant.
Even Gonzaga trailed BYU by 12 points at halftime Tuesday night in the West Coast title game. Turned out all right for the Zags, 88-78, and they’ll carry a 26-0 record into the NCAA Tournament, with 25 of the victories by double digits. “We needed a game like that,” Mark Few said. Sorry, 1976 Indiana Hoosiers, your legacy as the last unbeaten champions is still in peril. But still, it was an indication of the slippery landscape out there that even Gonzaga had to rally.
Eight No. 1 seeds have already lost in conference tournaments. And counting.
Not everyone can be Winthrop. The 23-1 Eagles swept through the Big South by winning their three games by 29, 21 and 27 points. They trailed a total of 12 seconds in the tournament. A lot of fellow No. 1 seeds could only look on in envy.