ST. LOUIS -- March Madness has officially begun. Yes, I know we have had a few days of games involving the lower seeded teams with directional names in conferences like the Big South and OVC. But for my purposes, the best month of the year kicked off on Friday.
Missouri State’s 58-56 win over underdog Southern Illinois had everything that makes a March college basketball game great. There was the tremendous story of Southern Illinois, with its coach under increasing heat, hoping to overcome a disappointing year by getting an unexpected win that would keep its season alive. There was the desperation of No. 1 seeded Missouri State, likely out of the NCAA Tournament unless it takes the title, finding itself down 9 points with 2:30 left in the game and its postseason dreams fading away. And there was the environment, a loud building filled with fans from 7 other teams hoping the conference favorite would fall early.
The setting was perfect for one of the most impressive, and important, late-game comebacks we have seen this season in college basketball. Down 9 with 150 seconds on the clock, Missouri State drained 3 three-pointers in four possessions to even the game. Helped by two missed free throws on the front end of one-and-one opportunities by Southern Illinois, the Bears’ rally took a game in which they never led, into a tied, two possession battle for advancement to the MVC semifinals.
After Southern Illinois’s Kendall Brown-Surles missed an open look with 16 seconds left, Missouri State called timeout for the final play. The Bears’ star Kyle Weems was fighting through one of his worst games of the season up to that point, going 4-17 and producing a series of audible groans from the St. Louis crowd after every missed open look. However, as he went to the bench for the final timeout, he asked for the ball and his teammates saying, “I want to make it up right here.”
Weems took the ball off the dribble and hit a running bank shot from ten feet that was the perfect combination of half-luck, half-tremendous skill. Weems said he purposefully shot the ball off the glass (afterwards he said his grandfather instilled in him the principle “backboards are our friends”), but the trajectory of the ball leaves its true intention up in the air. But regardless of what he hoped to do, what he accomplished was a game winning bucket with 1.4 seconds remaining that left Missouri State’s tournament hopes alive and sent the Salukis to another heartbreaking defeat.
As both teams walked off the court, the scene was once again indicative of what makes March so wonderful. The Southern Illinois fans stood in a state of shock, as their players walked off the court, all twelve heads focused upon the ground. Conversely, Missouri State fans hugged and danced in the stands, while Bear player Adam Leonard pumped his fist to the students. The elation/relief was palpable and Cuonzo Martin’s team lived to fight another day.
You can focus on the NFL labor negotiation extension, the Miami Heat flameout, Oregon’s football woes or Milton Bradley’s idiocy if you please. But I hope you keep the noise down, because after Kyle Weems nailed a jumper to send Missouri State to the MVC semifinals, for me March Madness has now officially begun.
Posted by MATT JONES