That’s not all that big of a deal, because they were playing in the meaningless “play-in” game of the NCAA tournament. All they did was lose the right to get blown out by Villanova. But I was rooting for them because they were a part of the best sporting event I’ve ever attended in my life.
Tomorrow and Friday are, in my opinion, the best days in sports. There will be 32 games played in 8 cities around the country. Some school we’ve never heard of will beat a big time school they have no right to defeat. We’ll see highlights of men in shorts tackling each other and screaming while people go crazy. It’s the best!
In 2001, my friend Rob Baker gave me a “job”. We lived in Boise, which was hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament. His company had won the contract for setting up the televised press conferences after the games, so Rob hired me as his lighting technician. All I had to do was carry a few boxes in, and my prize was a backstage pass to see four games of the tourney in person.
It turns out that day is still ranked as the best grouping of four games ever in the tournament. All four games were decided by a total of 7 points (still the record), and 3 out of the 4 games were upsets.
Georgia State started it off as the 11th seed, taking on 6th seed Wisconsin. Wisconsin lost because their senior star missed a free throw with 3.2 seconds left that would have tied the game. It was heartbreaking to watch the guy have to answer pointed questions at the press conference after the game.
Maryland, the 3 seed, played poorly and almost lost to George Mason in the second half of the morning session. I remember Juan Dixon draining a three right as time expired in the first half…and I remember the George Mason cheerleading squad being more like a first class bunch of gymnasts. The guys would throw the girls higher than I thought humanly possible; they’d twirl and spin, and then land safely.
I went home to see my family for awhile before the evening session, thinking that it just couldn’t get any better than what I had just watched. Ha!
10th seeded Georgetown took on 7th seeded Arkansas in the opener, in a game that was close the entire way. Some no-name from Georgetown had the ball with 5 seconds left, game tied. He drives the lane instead of following the designed play of passing to the star…and I’ll quote the Idaho Statesman for the rest:
Burton leaves his feet in the low post area to the left of the basket. He uses the left-handed shot he worked on last summer. “Coach Esherick was surprised, Kevin was surprised, Ruben was surprised, but I wasn’t surprised because I worked on my left hand this whole summer,” Burton said.
Eight-tenths of a second.
The shot went in.
Burton falls to the sideline behind the basket. More than 3,000 pounds of teammates pounce on him to form a dogpile.
And even that incredible game was just the appetizer.
My friend Rob was smart. He’d been watching the scorers table, and noticed that different schools had radio announcers that shared places on the floor. He realized that as soon as the Arkansas radio guys left, there was no one who was going to take their place. So, we snuck down and sat at the scorers table, at the end near one of the baskets, to watch the entire last game courtside.
Hampton University is a tiny school in Virginia that had never been in the tournament before. They won their conference championship, and got shipped across the country to play as a #15 seed in little Boise, Idaho against #2 seeded Iowa State, a basketball powerhouse. They ended up winning the hearts of the entire Boise community.
It started with their band. Iowa State’s band came out first, and they were everything you would expect from a Midwest college pep band. You probably can hear the fight song and the fanfare and the drums in your head. They were good…but normal.
Then Hampton came out.
The drum section started this unbelievable funky rhythm. Before anyone in the band had played a note, they were all dancing together in precision choreography. When the horns kicked in, it was like all these quiet white people in Boise got soul. The whole arena was clapping and some were on their feet, and the game hadn’t even started yet! The battle of the bands was almost embarrassing for poor Iowa State, and the crowd was already behind the underdog.
The basketball team felt it. They played inspired. They had a big guy who just had one of those nights. He was unstoppable, and the whole first half was close. I think Iowa State went in up by a point or two at the half, but we were all tasting the upset. One of the other side stories was that Iowa State’s coach was Larry Eustachy, who had begun his career coaching the Idaho Vandals. Boise, home of the Boise State Broncos, HATES the Vandals. So Hampton had us rooting FOR the underdog, FOR the band, and AGAINST Eustachy.
Eustachy must have got through to his players at the half, because they came out on a tear, and went up by like 11. Hampton’s big guy got in foul trouble and had to sit down. We all thought, “Well, this was fun while it lasted.”
And with about 8 minutes to go, magic happened. Hampton’s big guy came back in. One of their guards started stealing everything and taking it coast to coast for points. I’ve never been in such a loud arena in my life, as the entire crowd got behind this tiny Virginia school’s amazing, gutsy comeback.
With 6.9 seconds, at the basket right in front of us, Hampton inbounded the ball to their guard. He dumps a beautiful pass down low to the big guy, who makes an amazing shot in traffic. Hampton is up by 1! Iowa State’s Jamaal Tinsley tries to go the length of the floor, and his layup rolls around and out with 1 second left. Iowa State gets the rebound, but can’t get the shot off. And pandemonium breaks loose.
The tv highlights showed Hampton’s short little coach running around trying to find somebody to hug. He finally gets picked up by one of his players, who holds him in the air as the coach kicks his legs and pumps his arms. Hampton’s big guy jumped on the scorer’s table right next to us, mugging for the crowd. You can actually see a video of the end of the game at this link…scroll down and click on the video for 2001, Hampton vs. Iowa State. Rob and I were sitting just off camera to the left at the bottom of the screen.
It was only the 4th time ever a #15 defeated a #2. Best sporting event I ever saw.