If Thursday's night's NCAA Tournament First Four was any indication, we're in for a wild first couple of rounds in the Big Dance. All four games featured teams rallying from double-digit deficits to take second half leads, and three of them closed the deal. Drake's 53-52 win over Wichita State in a battle of No. 11 seeds was particularly dramatic. Despite trailing by 12 in both halves, the Bulldogs battled back to squeak out a victory. For a program that dealt with its share of adversity in the second half of the season after an 18-0 start, the grind-it-out win seemed appropriate.
That outcome followed a huge second half from Texas Southern that helped the Tigers rally from a 30-20 halftime deficit to knock off Mount St. Mary's 60-52. Texas Southern will play No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday.
A third double-digit comeback by Appalachian State ultimately ended in agony for the Mountaineers, though. After trailing Norfolk State 34-15 in the first half, Appalachian State rallied to take a 51-45 lead with 5:47 left before collapsing down the stretch in a battle of No. 16 seeds. By virtue of its 54-53 win, Norfolk State advances to play No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga on Saturday.
The night's most-anticipated game also delivered in a major way, as UCLA outlasted Michigan State 86-80 in overtime in a battle of No. 11 seeds. The Bruins trailed 44-33 at halftime but somehow found the juice to battle back and advance to face No. 6 seed BYU on Saturday.
Winner: UCLA gets it done
The Bruins limped into the NCAA Tournament as the losers of four straight games, and it seemed like this team might simply be running out of gas. This is a team that lost leading scorer Chris Smith for the season due to injury, and UCLA has also been without a key rotation player in Jalen Hill for over a month now. The depth winnowed so much that second-year coach Mick Cronin turned in recent weeks to using an early-enrollee freshman Mac Etienne after he enrolled in January expecting to redshirt. No matter, the Bruins are alive and kicking and still have enough talent to do some more damage. -- Cobb
Loser: Michigan State's communication
There are heated discussions all the time in basketball, and the high-stakes tension of the postseason only serves to ratchet up the emotional intensity of the sport. But a moment between Michigan State coach Tom Izzo and Spartans' forward Gabe Brown at the end of Thursday's first half featured a bit of physical altercation as well. Brown appeared frustrated with how teammate Malik Hall had defended a pick-and-roll situation that led to an open UCLA jumper just before the half. At first, Brown confronted Hall, but then Izzo came over and Izzo and Brown started jawing at one another. With the two still in sight of a broadcast camera, Izzo grabbed Brown, then held the back of the player's jersey as Brown tried to head toward the locker room. Eventually, Izzo started running after Hall as the two disappeared out of sight.
This isn't why Michigan State lost. But the sequence underscored the issues that have plagued this team all season as it has struggled to play up to its potential after a brief rise into the top-five of the AP poll back in December -- Cobb
Winner: Drake gets first NCAA Tournament win in exactly 50 years
Entering Thursday, it was exactly 50 years ago -- March 18, 1971 -- that Drake last won an NCAA Tournament game. Back then, the Bulldogs were in the midst of the best hoops era in school history, which included three straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 1969 to 1971. But in the half-century since, the program had appeared in the Big Dance just once. That appearance came in 2008, when the No. 5 seed Bulldogs lost 101-99 to Western Kentucky on a buzzer beater. Perhaps there were some flashbacks to that moment on Thursday, when Alterique Gilbert rose from beyond the arc for a shot that would have given Wichita State a buzzer-beating victory. But when the shot fell off the rim, and for the first time in 50 years, the Bulldogs had a win in the Big Dance. -- Cobb
Winner: Joseph Yesufu's stardom
The most common names bandied about from the Drake roster this season have been the names of injured stars ShanQuan Hemphill and Roman Penn. That's because both players suffered a broken foot recently in a run of bad luck that cast the Bulldogs' hopes of gaining an NCAA Tournament bid into question. Although Hemphill returned Thursday, the name you'll be hearing from this Drake roster moving forward will be that of Joseph Yesufu. The 6-foot guard sparked his team with an electric dunk over Wichita State's Clarence Jackson late in the first half and led the Bulldogs with 21 points. Yesufu is now averaging 22.9 points over Drake's last eight games. His emergence with Hemphill and Penn out was an absolute necessity, and he could make life hard on USC in Saturday's first round game. -- Cobb
Loser: Wichita State ran out of gas
Wichita State lost consecutive one-point games to end what, otherwise, was a storybook season. After coach Gregg Marshall's resignation in November, assistant Isaac Brown took over a roster that appeared to have some flaws. Following a slow start, Brown guided the Shockers to the AAC regular season crown and earned the full-time job. But a narrow victory over lowly South Florida in the AAC Tournament and a one-point loss to Cincinnati in the AAC Tournament semifinals suggested this club was running out of gas. The Shockers held double-digit leads on Drake in both halves but couldn't hold on in the end. It was a good year for the program -- especially considering the circumstances with Marshall -- but the ending will leave a sour taste. -- Cobb
So blessed to have played with each and every one of my teammates this year! In such a weird year we overcame so much and I’m forever grateful for the journey with these guys . To the seniors I love y’all man and continue to BE GREAT and allow God to use you in a positive way💯— Clarence “Monzy” Jackson (@cash9_) March 19, 2021
Loser: The AAC is kind of a one-bid league after all
Wichita State left the Missouri Valley Conference and joined the AAC for the 2017-18 season. If it was a move designed to bolster the program's basketball prestige, it seems to have failed. Four seasons have now elapsed since the transition, and the Shockers yet to win an NCAA Tournament game as members of the AAC. Though last year's tournament was canceled, Wichita State was also projected to be in a First Four game before the cancelation. Making matters worse, Thursday's loss came against a former MVC rival that had lost 11 straight to the Shockers. As one of the last teams into the field of 68, Wichita State narrowly helped the AAC avoid the embarrassing fate of being a one-bid league. But the AAC will be a one-bid league in the round of 64. With only Houston left in the field, it's clear the AAC's hoops acumen is struggling. Would-be standard bearers Wichita State, Memphis and Cincinnati need to regain the form they enjoyed in the not so distant past if this league is going to gain respect. -- Cobb
Winner: Johnny Jones gets first NCAA Tournament win
Johnny Jones has been to Final Fours both as a player and as an assistant coach for LSU, but the 59-year-old college basketball lifer finally got his first NCAA Tournament victory as a head coach on Thursday. Jones' Texas Southern squad roared back from a 10-point halftime deficit to knock off Mount St. Mary's 60-52 and secure a spot in Saturday's first round game against No. 1 seed Michigan. Jones also took North Texas and LSU to NCAA Tournament appearances, but this group has accomplished something those teams never did and notched a victory in the Big Dance. -- Cobb
Winner: Norfolk State's Jalen Hawkins
Norfolk State junior Jalen Hawkins had a previous career-high of 17 points entering the NCAA Tournament. So in his first-ever March Madness appearance, and in true March Madness fashion, the junior guard had 20 points by halftime on Thursday night. Off the bench! Hawkins cooled off in the second half with only four points along with his Spartans, who nearly gave up a 16-point halftime lead. But his outstanding performance helped them hang on for a 54-53 win, leading them to advance in the Big Dance for the first time since 2012. -- Boone
Chalk it up to NCAA Tournament jitters, or the fright of the biggest stage in the sport, but one thing was clear Thursday: Offense was sure hard to come by. While UCLA and Michigan State were able to put points on the board in the last game of the First Four, the highest-scoring team in the day's first three games was Texas Southern with 60 points. Norfolk State won with 54 and Drake won with 53. Appalachian State's furious rally against Norfolk State might have met a happier ending if the Mountaineers hadn't made just 6-of-36 attempts from 3-point range. -- Boone
Winner: HBCU history
Both of the No. 16 seeds that won Thursday night are HBCUs, and their victories on the same night marked history, according to NCAA Director of Media Coordination David Worlock, who shared the following on Twitter: "For the first time in history, a MEAC school and a SWAC school have won a game in the same tournament." Both teams face tough first round opponents. But regardless of what happens Saturday, both were part of history on Thursday. -- Cobb
Winner: BYU makes COVID-19 testing fun
The pandemic's impact has been felt already at the NCAA Tournament. Though none of the 68 teams have needed to withdraw due to the virus, a few individual players will miss games this weekend due to health and safety protocols. But for most programs, the grind of regular testing has become a fact of life, and apparently some are having fun with it. BYU, in particular, seems to be making the most its appointments with health officials. -- Cobb