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A letter from a reader about the NCAA basketball tourney

March 11, 2004

Despite my relative youth, I have been fortunate enough to attend 23 NCAA Tournament games — including witnessing three teams march to the Final Four and another three play on Semifinal Saturday. I've seen every possible round, save Monday night, and some of the greatest players: Ray Allen, Baron Davis, Juan Dixon, and Dwayne Wade, to name a few. I remember Earl Boykins and Eastern Michigan defeating Duke in 1996; the classic Missouri-Marquette overtime score-athon from 2003, and the titanic matchup of #1s Maryland and Kansas in Atlanta.

As for the most exhilarating game, that would have been Indiana's upset of defending national champion Duke, predicated on a 17-2 run that thrilled a partisan IU crowd at Rupp Arena. When Jay Williams swished a three point shot and got fouled; the building went silent, save for those Duke fanatics — until his in-and-out free throw resulted in a 74-73 South Regional semifinal triumph — the Hoosiers first regional win since 1993. In those 23 contests, I've seen Duke and UCLA play four different times, losing every game, three of them major upsets.

But wait a minute; ought another game rank even higher than the Duke-IU classic of ’03, because if I saw Eastern Michigan beat Duke I would have seen another contest later that night, right? One of the Top Ten games in NCAA Tournament history, no? It was played at the same building, the RCA Dome in Indianapolis, and it was not the Mississippi State/Virginia Commonwealth game either. #4 UCLA v. #13 Princeton, last game on the docket, a harmless opponent for the champs, right?

43-41 later, punctuated by arguably the most electric lay-up in basketball history, Pete Carril's Tigers had swallowed Jim Harrick's Bruins, somewhat erasing the pain of their 50-49 close-but-no-cigar loss to #1 Georgetown in 1989. I had a ticket for the game, so why wasn't I there for the dramatic ending?

I would like to able to say that I thought UCLA was too powerful and that it was not worth it staying for a blowout; that would sound better than the reality. The truth was that I didn't especially care if the game was going to be lopsided, for this represented my first day at the NCAA Tournament; I was clamoring to see every game possible. There was but one problem; I had never done this before, and it showed.

It appears ludicrous on its face, but unless you've experienced it you don't understand how tiring four games in a single evening are to your body. Yes, mostly you just sit there, and yes there is a break after the second game, but that is still 160 minutes of basketball, assuming no overtime. In the end, the fatigue got to this then-adolescent, and he succumbed to temptation, promptly missing the most memorable basketball game of his life. My father, responsible for my ticket, tried to talk me through it, asserting that this game could have potential; that UCLA was not running away from the Ivy League champions. Regrettably, I failed to suck it up, and we made a retreat toward the exits.

This was not first nor the last time that either of my parents afforded my opinion more relevance than it deserved. My last memory before falling asleep in the automobile was the radio crackling in the front, something about neither team having 20 points near the end of the first half. The next day, and every subsequent March, I would be reminded of the Steve Goodrich to Gabe Lewullis "backdoor" basket with less than four seconds on the clock.

What it really came down to however, was that critical half-hour. If I could have endured just that much more, the adrenaline and reverberations of a rapidly-becoming-Princetonian crowd would have sustained our presence. Or perhaps that is wishful thinking. I do know that Toby Bailey's errant desperation shot sent the crowd into euphoria, as little Princeton had finally beaten a juggernaut. UCLA botched numerous chances to wrap up the game, everything from missed lay-ups to bricked foul shots, but it didn't happen.

Before the contest, the Bruins had whined about receiving unfair treatment from the selection committee, as Arizona, not the Pac-10 champions, were awarded a spot in the West Regional; Coach Harrick thought his team got "screwed," and perhaps that decision kept UCLA from another strong tourney run; they'd won the thing in ’95, and would make it to the Midwest Regional final in ’97. Maybe, but because of a misfiled expense account report, that loss was the last of the Harrick regime; the second most successful coach in UCLA historyśwas there karma in the building that night, in more ways than one?

I'd like to give you an answer, but then again, I wasn't there.

M. Edward Guest


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