The first full day of NCAA tournament action came with its share of upsets and near-upsets.
None was more shocking, however, than Harvard’s 68-62 win over No. 3 seed New Mexico in Salt Lake City on Thursday night.
The Crimson reached the tournament for the second straight year, and earned just its third bid ever, by winning the Ivy League in 2012-13. That came as something as a surprise for a program that was rocked last fall when its two best players—Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry—left the team following an academic scandal.
So there was no way Harvard was going to be a threat to get its first-ever tournament win, right? Except that coach Tommy Amaker’s younger players stepped up in a big way to lead the Crimson past the Mountain West Conference’s regular-season and tournament champion Lobos.
Freshman point guard Siyani Chambers played all 40 minutes and notched seven assists. Sophomore forward Wesley Saunders led Harvard with 18 points and junior guard Laurent Rivard knocked down five 3-pointers and scored 17 points and, just like that, the Crimson was tickled pink.
It wasn’t the only surprise on Thursday. The Pac-12 Conference, which placed five teams in the field a season after its regular-season champion was snubbed, had a perfect day despite getting no love from the selection committee. Those five bids included a pair of No. 6 seeds (UCLA and Arizona), a No. 10 seed (Colorado) and two No. 12 slots (California and tournament champion Oregon).
The Ducks showed they were vastly underrated by the committee, rolling to a 68-55 win over No. 5-seed Oklahoma State in San Jose, Calif., led by guard Damyean Dotson’s 17 points. Oregon also got 11 points and 17 rebounds from forward Arsalan Kazemi.
During the night session in San Jose, California stepped forward by stopping UNLV, also a No. 5 seed, 64-61. The victory avenged a 76-75 loss to the Rebels on the Golden Bears’ home floor on Dec. 9. Pac-12 Player of the Year Allen Crabbe led the way for Cal with 19 points and nine rebounds, but the Golden Bears made it interesting. Cal made just 4-of-12 free throws in the final minute of play, allowing the Runnin’ Rebels to make it interesting after the Golden Bears took a 60-53 lead with just 47 seconds to go.
Arizona capped a perfect day for the Pac-12 by blasting Belmont—picked by many to be a leading candidate to knock off the higher-seeded Wildcats—81-64.
Elsewhere, Wichita State—the No. 9 seed in the West Region—pulled off a mild upset in stunning fashion. The Shockers blew out Pittsburgh 73-55 by completely dominating play in the second half. Wichita State hung 47 points on the defensive-minded Panthers after intermission.
In the near-miss category, Davidson almost knocked No. 3-seed Marquette in East Region play at Lexington, Ky., but Golden Eagles’ guard Vander Blue saved Marquette with a game-winning layup with one second remaining.
Meanwhile in Auburn Hills, Mich., young coach Josh Pastner finally got his first win as Memphis’ coach when the Tigers were able to survive a late run from No. 11-seed Saint Mary’s for a 54-52 win.
Top-seeded Gonzaga did little to silence its critics, topping No. 16-seed Southern 64-58 in the closes 1-16 game since 1996.
Then there were the results that weren’t so surprising:
–No. 3-seed Michigan State dumped Valparaiso in Auburn Hills, 65-45.
–No. 6-seed Butler survived a run by Bucknell in Lexington to claim a 68-56 win.
–No. 4-seed Saint Louis pummeled New Mexico State 64-44 at San Jose.
–Top-seeded Louisville opened its tournament run with a 79-48 obliteration of North Carolina A&T in Lexington.
–Michigan, a No. 4 seed, beat South Dakota State 71-56 in Auburn Hills despite a tough night—physically and on the court—from star point guard Trey Burke.
–Colorado State hammered No. 9-seed Missouri at Lexington 84-72.
–Fifth-seeded VCU ended Akron’s 19-game winning streak in devastating fashion, taking a 25-point halftime lead and pulling away for an 88-42 blowout at Auburn Hills.
–VCU didn’t claim the largest margin of victory on Thursday, however. That honor when to fourth-seeded Syracuse, which held Montana to just 15 points in the first half en route to an 81-34 vaporizing of the Big Sky Conference champions.