A Cinderella Story

by Brian Clarey

It’s Thursday, the first day of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and I already want to change my bracket. Games are underway in Louisville and Pittsburgh, and I’m experiencing the first flushes of what would become deep regret about choosing Southern Mississippi over Kansas State. What the hell was I thinking? The games in the Greensboro Coliseum won’t start until tomorrow. I’m here to pick up my media credentials, find my seat on Press Row and watch some of the competing teams take practice on the floor. Most of the press corps stand in the hallway outside the team locker rooms waiting for the UNC Tarheels to emerge for their practice session, though it isn’t due to start for another 45 minutes. About a hundred or so media folks are here, from TV and radio, daily and college newspapers, slick sports magazines and hoops-related websites. Viv Bernstein from the New York Times moves down the corridors with a full head of steam. There’s a team from USA Today prowling the grounds. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, the Associated Press and every other major news outlet have a presence in the media center and seats on Press Row, along with local luminaries like Andrew Carter from the Raleigh News & Observer and the great Ed Hardin of the Greensboro News & Record. This is the biggest — and the best — amateur tournament in American sports, 64 college teams from around the nation, gamers one and all, vying for the national title and bragging rights that last decades. They’re still talking about NC State’s miracle run in 1983, when the Wolfpack under Head Coach Jim Valvano took on the heavily favored Phi Slama Jama crew from Houston, that included future Hall of Famers Clyde Drexler and Hakeem Olajuwon, and won the title in a close one, 54-52. They’re still talking about it because NC State was a 6 seed, an underdog that had to beat a raging UNLV squad and 1 seed Virginia — better, faster and stronger teams — on their way to the title. In sports journalism a team like this is called “Cinderella,” because like the fairy-tale heroine with the wicked-stepmother problem, they come to the dance out of nowhere, only to shake things up, bust through the status quo, render foregone conclusions null and void. Cinderellas are what makes the NCAA Men’s Tournament so great: Every year some unheard-of squad breaks through the first rounds, upsetting teams they have no right to beat, teams with more resources, better recruiting, marquee rosters, pro prospects… it’s one of the reasons people love to follow these games. The first NCAA Cinderella team came on in 1966, the Miners of Texas Western College, an all-black squad who defeated an all-white Kentucky team amid a fomenting Civil Rights Movement. After NC State did their thing in 1983, Villanova did it two years later, taking down 1-seed Georgetown, becoming the lowest seed, 8, ever to win the title. Games like that one are what the tournament is all about, and while the national media are fawning over favorites Carolina and Duke like 5-year-olds playing soccer, I’m taking a different angle. Like Prince Charming carting the glass slipper around town in that old story, I’m here looking for Cinderella. Early on, I’m feeling a bit like an underdog myself. I realize that I haven’t been assigned a seat at the four long, courtside tables that constitute Press Row. “You probably don’t qualify for one,” I’m told. “It’s based on circulation.” Never mind that papers smaller than mine seem to have gotten their due, and even a couple of less-than-reputable websites have spots reserved with their names on them. It doesn’t matter that I’m a decorated sports writer who has been covering this tournament in North Carolina since 2007, when it was held at the Joel in Winston-Salem. And never mind that at least 10 percent of credentialed media will not even bother to show up for anything but the Carolina and Duke games, even then with no guarantee they’ll actually file stories. I also have been denied photo credentials, so I’m wondering if I have to bring my sketch pad to create a visual component for my piece. But like underdogs everywhere, I realize that when they count me out, it makes me better. I slide into a vacant seat and watch the teams practice. When the Tarheels come out to the court, applause rises from the smattering of Carolina blue-shirted looky-loos in attendance. The cheers and whistles continue as the team runs drills, windmilling their arms, swiveling hips, skipping from one end of the hardwood to the other. Practice day is for fanboys, groupies and professional gamblers trying to get an edge, and after watching a few teams shoot around, I have serious reservations about my own bracket. I watch Creighton’s Ethan Wragge, No. 34, sink about a dozen 3-pointers in a row. I have never heard of Creighton University, not even once, but they’re playing Alabama here tomorrow. So I study up. It’s a Jesuit school in Omaha, Neb. with about 7,500 full-time students. And their men’s basketball team, the Bluejays, won the Missouri Valley Conference this year under the strength of guards Grant Gibbs, No. 10, a transfer from Gonzaga, and Antoine Young, No. 30, who considered leaving the school before this season, as well as a big Venezuelan center, Gregory Echenique, listed at 6-foot-9 and 270 pounds. There’s serious backstory, too. Forward Doug McDermott played high school ball in Ames, Iowa with UNC’s Harrison Barnes. McDermott’s father, Greg, became head coach of the Bluejays after putting up a 59-68 record at Iowa State. I choose Alabama in my bracket, though they’re a 9 seed to Creighton’s 8, because they’re better known — to me, anyway — with a big-time sports program and a consistent presence in the SEC. But I’m starting to have my doubts. Meanwhile my picks are holding up. Though I eventually lose the Southern Mississippi contest, Murray State does me right against Colorado State. I log a win with Louisville, which beats Davidson after a tough one, and I’m looking good with Wisconsin and Marquette. But 1-seed Syracuse is getting creamed by 16-seed UNC-Asheville, a Cinderella-story in the making I would normally love to see. But I have Syracuse going all the way to the Final Four, and this won’t do. It won’t do at all. I stick around to watch Duke warm up, experience the wash of cheers that comes over them and their coach, Mike Krzyzewski — the notorious Coach K — hear the girls in the stands squeal when one of the Plumlee brothers removes his sweaty practice jersey. I’ve never understood why so many uneducated, blue-collar North Carolinians love this team representing one of the country’s most elite universities. Rooting for Duke is like rooting for the bank. But the hometown fans cheer everything their Dookies do, even when the guys gather around the base of the net to stretch their calves, and again when they finish. They don’t know it, but they are in for a big surprise. On Day 2 of the first round of the tournament, my bracket is looking good. UConn let me down against Iowa State, and 12-seed Virginia Commonwealth University came out of nowhere to upset 5-seed Wichita State. I was looking for a Cinderella moment from 12-seed Harvard based solely on the NBA season of the NY Knicks’ Jeremy Lin, an alumni, but that didn’t happen. Of the 16 games of the first day, I’ve picked 11 winners, including Syracuse, which rallied late to defeat Asheville. But there are 16 more games playing out today, including the contest between Creighton and Alabama, which I’m about to watch from the seats marked “other media” in the front row behind the press seats. As far as I can tell, I’m the only member of the working media sitting here. Alabama is bigger than Creighton, faster, stronger. They have hotter cheerleaders and a better marching band. But the Bluejays pull ahead quickly on 3-pointers by Wragge and inside play by McDermott. The lead changes four times in the first half, but in the end Alabama is on top 30-23 when their dance team takes the court in glittery tops and serious yoga pants, looking for all the world like a Vegas revue. Creighton’s cheerleaders, wholesome and corn-fed, look like little girls by comparison. Before the second half begins, I note that NC State is up by 10 against San Diego State — good for me — and Texas has lost to Cincinnati — not so much. But here in the Greensboro Coliseum, Creighton comes out swinging, initiating a 14-5 run that leaves the game tied six minutes into the half. Though plagued by fouls, Alabama gets and holds the lead until McDermott rolls in a layup at 5:40 giving the Bluejays 51 to the Tide’s 50. Behind me in the stands, a red-faced Alabama fan shouts himself raw. McDermott scores another four points in the last four minutes as Tarheel fans load the arena for the day’s next game, giving him 16 in Creighton’s 58-57 win. In the media-center scrum, the crew from KETV out of Omaha talks about their team’s next game. “I think it’s the biggest game in Creighton’s history,” one says. “Playing North Carolina in North Carolina?” After a 10-minute waiting period, ushers call the waiting scribes and talking heads into the locker rooms. A small crowd has formed around McDermott, named the player of the game. I move to Wragge, sitting by himself on a chair. His three 3-point shots, his total scoring contribution, made a huge difference in the outcome. “It was uphill the whole game,” he says. “They made us work for all our points.” When I tell him he’s busted my bracket, he just smiles. Before the next game, UNC vs. Vermont, the stadium practically vibrates from the Tarheel roars emanating from the faithful. The game is a lock — Vermont had to beat tiny Lamar just to earn its 16 seed. And this is basically a home game for the Tarheels. The coliseum is a sea of Carolina blue, with a sliver of Vermont fans in green, looking grateful just to be somewhere there isn’t snow on the ground. Carolina takes the lead early and holds it the entire game. They are so much bigger and quicker, play with so much more discipline and basketball IQ, have more big-game experience and TV time than this crew of underdogs will ever see. They have more resources, better equipment, and everybody in the coliseum, more than 16,000 of them, is screaming their names. With a foregone conclusion like this, the deadline writers have it easy. Carolina starts putting their scrubs in with three minutes left in the game, an eternity in college basketball, when the score stands at 73-47. Here’s how you write a sports story on deadline: Set your laptop up in your seat on Press Row and watch the game, occasionally describing key action points like this one: McAdoo makes a steal in the backcourt, dribbles across and dishes the ball to Bullock, who launches a missed shot from 3-point range. McAdoo grabs the offensive rebound, streaks for the net and makes the dunk to put the Tarheels ahead 15-9. String a few of those together, salt in some stats provided after the half and the final, write a lede and kicker, pop in a few quotes, also provided by pool reporting, and then file. Easy peasy. Afterwards I check my bracket. I had Carolina, naturally, and I also score with NC State and Georgetown. Florida State did me right with a close one against St. Bonaventure. But 2-seed Missouri is getting worked pretty good by 15-seed Norfolk State. Missouri will eventually lose that contest, a tremendous upset. But that doesn’t prepare me for the shock that happens when another 15-seed, Lehigh, takes on Duke this very afternoon, right here in Greensboro. By now, everyone knows that the Lehigh Mountain Hawks upset the Duke Blue Devils in the first round of tournament play on North Carolina soil. By now, gameplay has been analyzed, deconstructed and reassembled by a thousand different entities. If you’re a basketball fan — or even a modest consumer of media in this state — you have been bombarded with the news. I see it coming, by the way… sort of. Just before the half I make a Facebook post about Coach K, who’s sweating it on the sidelines just before UNC pulls ahead for the first time all game. But you might not know the small details: that before this, Lehigh had played Duke four times since 1940 and never won; that they lost the last game, in 1996, by a score of 103-51; that this was the first time Lehigh ever won a game in the NCAA tournament after five appearances, and the first time in history they have ever beaten a team from the ACC. But mere facts can’t convey what happens in the Greensboro Coliseum Friday night, the grit that carried Lehigh through the second half, the mastery of Lehigh’s CJ McCollum who puts up 30 of his team’s 75 points, the conversion of Carolina fans who initially came just to boo Duke but end up becoming Lehigh boosters, the looks on Duke fans’ faces as they scramble for the exits before even the last game of the night, the deadline writers frantically reworking their stories to reflect this new reality. Many of the media types seem unable to pivot to the real news here. After the team locker rooms open for reporters, about 80 percent of the journalists in the gathering make straight for Duke’s space to get footage and quotes. I head for the Lehigh locker-room celebration. While the cameras and lights focus on McCollum, I approach sophomore guard Mackey McKnight, No. 11, who had a pretty good night himself, with 11 points, three steals, two rebounds and three assists. Plus, he’s from New Orleans — a Ninth Ward kid whose mother went to Loyola in that city, just like me. He says his team got a lot of support from Tarheel fans from the moment they got to North Carolina. “We all started to believe,” he says. Then he gives me the quote of the night, the mantra of Cinderella teams and underdogs in every walk of life. “Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard,” he says. By the time the Xavier/Notre Dame game begins, I’m exhausted. Though I backed Duke like just about everybody else who filled out a bracket this year, my picks are in order. Memphis lets me down against St. Louis and along with Texas, Alabama and Duke I’ve also lost Virginia and Missouri. I took Xavier, and they oblige by beating Notre Dame 67-63. I’m still in good shape. In Chapel Hill, they’ve already got T-shirts made celebrating Lehigh’s historic victory. On Saturday, the field begins to narrow down to what is known as the Sweet 16. On my bracket, I lose Gonzaga to Ohio State, and Marquette knocks off Murray State. Other than that I’m good, and ready for Sunday’s match-ups in Greensboro, hoping for another upset, still looking for Cinderella. The Greensboro games start late on Sunday. I’ve already watched NC State take out Georgetown — good for me and my bracket — and Michigan State beat St. Louis — also good — before Creighton takes on UNC in Greensboro. I’ve got Carolina, of course, but like sports fans everywhere I am secretly pulling for the boys from Nebraska. Why? Because they haven’t got a chance. There’s something compelling about the underdog, a magical quality to Cinderella teams that defy odds, overcome adversity, hit their marks even when everything is stacked against them. Carolina is a basketball machine, a 1 seed playing just 60 miles or so from their home stadium. The stands are full of their fans and half of their players will eventually go pro. Their merchandise is worn as far away as California, and their history is legendary. On top of that, Carolina fans outweigh Creighton fans by about 20 to 1 here in the coliseum. Still, as the deadline junkies shuffle their papers and tweet pre-game analysis, as the photogs wrangle for space underneath the baskets and the fans unleash their “Tar-HEELS” chant before the game, I see Ethan Wragge hitting 3-pointers seemingly at will and Grant Gibbs looking pissed. I’m thinking maybe they’ve got a shot at it. There’s always hope for the underdog, even one like me: In the interim day, I’ve had my seat upgraded to one just off the baseline, right on the court. From the start, the game looks promising. UNC takes an early lead, but strong play by Creighton center Gregory Echenique keeps them in the game. Echenique owns Tarheel center Tyler Zeller, pushing the taller but significantly smaller player around underneath the boards, muscling him away from rebounds, breaking up his shots. The program lists the Venezuelan as having a 20-pound advantage, but it looks more like 40 to me. By the end of the first half, he’s got eight points and four rebounds, two of them off the offensive boards. Doug McDermott is stepping up against his former teammate, with 11 points and four rebounds at the half, though the score favors Carolina 43-35 even after a late-period 11-4 run in Creighton’s favor. Basketball is a game of near misses, quick decisions, half-steps and close calls. It’s a game of streaks: wins, losses, points, fouls. The goal is a simple one — put the biscuit in the basket — but gameplay involves strategy, teamwork, improvisation and, often, a little luck. Tonight, Creighton shoots just 41.2 percent from the floor compared to Carolina’s 50.8 percent. Creighton hits just 40 percent of its 3-point attempts — Wragge, normally a sharpshooter, goes three for eight — and Carolina makes half of theirs. In the end, Creighton, which has averaged 80 points per game during the regular season, only puts up 73 to Carolina’s 87. They are simply outscored. Carolina did not come through unscathed. Star guard Kendall Marshall fractured his wrist in the second half, coming down hard after being fouled by Wragge, which cuts his scoring output to a still-impressive 11 points. I watched Grant Gibbs scowl on the court as Carolina fans cheered his team’s failure. He says his underdog status propelled him to get a team-high 10 rebounds in this game. “I’ve always been that guy,” he says afterwards in the Creighton locker room. “A home game is great, but in front of opposing crowds, I always play with a chip on my shoulder.” Wragge says what all underdogs say after they lose: “We’ve got a group of young guys,” he says after cutting the tape off his ankles for the last time this season. “We’ve got a big offense. I know Creighton will be back here.” All that’s left for me is Lehigh, a 15 seed playing Xavier, an 8 seed with seven straight tournament appearances and 11 in the last 12 years. By tip-off, Press Row has cleared out — too bad for them, because Lehigh has come out swinging. They’re still riding high off the Duke win, and Carolina fans gave them a standing ovation when they took seats in the coliseum to watch Creighton’s inevitable loss to the Heels. Mackey McKnight makes the first basket of the game about a minute in, and hits a 3-pointer at 17:44 to make the score 5-2 in Lehigh’s favor. The Mountain Hawks roll, with strong play by forward Gabe Knutsen, No. 42, who puts up 8 points, and forward Holden Greiner, No. 20, who comes of the bench to nab five rebounds in the first half. Star guard CJ McCollum, who has rewritten the Lehigh record book in just three seasons, gets jammed up by Xavier’s defense, allowing McKnight to shine with 14 points in the first half alone. Lehigh benefits from the presence of Tarheel fans, grateful for their orchestration of Duke’s demise. With 8:20 left to play in the half, Lehigh is up 29-14, but a big run by Xavier negates much of their gains. When the halftime buzzer sounds, Lehigh is up 37-33. The second half belongs to Xavier. The Musketeers begin a scoring run that brings them ahead 47-40 just six minutes in. McCollum comes alive, breaking free from his defenders, but he can’t make a shot to save his life. Lehigh hit 53.3 percent of its shots from the field during the first half; in the second it’s a dismal 14.7 percent. From 3-point range, they go 1 for 15. With three minutes left in the game, the score 60-52, it’s all over. The final tally, 70-58 in Xavier’s favor, shows what can happen when Cinderella gets to the ball, but she’s forgotten how to waltz. On the floor of the coliseum, the Lehigh squad gathers in front of their fans who made the trip down from Pennsylvania. They have all come a long way. They have shocked the world. But their ride ends here. McKnight is named Player of the Game, playing the full 40 minutes and registering 20 points. He’s got two years of eligibility left, and enough young guys on his team to have another shot at this next year. “The whole thing has been a dream come true,” he says afterwards in the locker room. “It was a dream come true to beat Duke, to even play Xavier.” ‘ “The last 20 minutes of the game,” he adds, “the ball didn’t like us anymore.” So it’s midnight for the Cinderella teams from Greensboro’s chapter of the 2012 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Two will go on to the Sweet 16 — UNC and Xavier. And my own bracket is holding up. Ten of my teams are still alive, including NC State, an 11 seed meeting 2-seed Kansas in St. Louis. If they can prevail, I have them beating the Tarheels to make it to the Final Four. Maybe Cinderella is wearing red this year.