Outside, the snow was falling in large, sticky clumps. Seventy degrees just days before, the Rockies were now receiving their annual late March winter dusting. The change, though sudden, was rather peaceful. The streets thinned, the bars filled, and those venturing to the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s first round games at the Pepsi Center were bundled up, waiting calmly in the long lines stretching to the parking lot to enter. Denver was falling under a deep freeze. Yet inside, thousands of fans hoping to take shelter from the storm were mere hours from witnessing a basketball meltdown.
My ticket to the opening session yielded two games. First up, fourth seeded Iowa State took on thirteenth seeded Iona in a battle of prolific offenses. Iona, both a heavy underdog and a trendy upset pick, was led by pro-prospect A.J. English, a 6’4’’ scorer who could heat it up from outside the three-point arc. Neither English nor his team disappointed, as they lit up the scoreboard and pushed the ball up and down the court at a breathtaking pace. Nor did they shrink from the bright television lights of the tournament. They brought their best, and on any other day it might have been good enough. Instead, they fell 94-81 to an Iowa State team that was nearly their mirror image—that is, if the smiling face reflected back at them was fresher, more relaxed, and better looking. Iowa State’s team was also comprised of undersized sharp shooters. They, too, had a roster full of seniors who played little defense but brought a crisp-passing, high-flying offensive display pleasing to the eyes. They just did those things better—their game was flashier and more polished. Forty minutes in the Cyclones’ vortex and a flurry of baskets later, Iona’s ride was over. Although the game’s outcome never felt in doubt, its energy stirred the crowd, raising the temperature inside the arena.
In stark contrast to the first game, the next two teams to take the floor could not have been more different from one another. Fifth seeded Purdue University was a large, plodding, bully of a team. Led by 7’0’’ star A.J. Hammons and his 7’2’’ backup Isaac Haas, the Boilermakers’ philosophy was bruising and blue collar. Purdue’s most famous basketball alum is “Big Dog” Glenn Robinson, and the school plays in the Big Ten conference. Meanwhile, their opponents this Thursday afternoon—from the aptly named Little Rock—buzzed around the court in pre-game warmups like a swarm of gnats unconcerned with their long odds and low tournament life expectancy. One could be forgiven for mistaking their players for the team managers, the concession staff, or even a collection of lucky fans granted the opportunity to shoot around before the game, were it not for their matching crimson uniforms. Little Rock’s starting backcourt, for instance, was comprised of the 6’1’’ Josh Hagins and the 5’11’’ Marcus Johnson. Although strong in spirit, it appeared that their small stature and uncertain pedigree would doom their chances.
This certainly seemed to be the case at the outset. Purdue quickly jumped out to a small but consistent lead. Halfway through the second half, the Boilermakers held a ten-point advantage and a win probability exceeding 90%. The Trojans valiantly continued their unending battle, but the lead only grew larger as the game trod on. After connecting on a three-pointer with 5:01 to go, Purdue extended their margin to fourteen points. It seemed all over but the handshake line.
The NCAA tournament is called March Madness for a reason, but what happened next seemed orchestrated and ornately choreographed despite the seeming chaos of the moment. It was as if someone shook the arena like a snow globe; the world was turned upside down, yet once the deed was done, what precipitated fell into place slowly and predictably. With the fourteen-point lead still secure with a mere four minutes left, Little Rock began to chip away. Purdue did not take the game for granted; they were not over-confident or arrogant in their approach. Instead, they seemed stunned that this tiny school from Little Rock would keep on punching with the outcome so far from doubt. A nice stretch of play brought the underdog slightly closer, to within seven with just under two minutes remaining. And then, the Purdue players lost their composure.
The play-by-play is almost as dramatic to review now as it was to witness live. A foul and a free-throw. A Purdue turnover. A deep three-pointer from Hagins. Yet, another Purdue turnover. The Boilermakers were out of sorts and playing scared. At this point, the size of the lead was irrelevant. Purdue looked hopelessly lost and incapable of playing as themselves. A layup and two more three-pointers from Little Rock, sandwiched around a pair of free-throws and a three from Purdue—their only basket in the final five minutes of regulation—capped off by a deep, twisting, off-balance Hagins miracle from straight away. Suddenly the game was tied and headed to overtime.
Only it was worse than that. Purdue’s players completely abandoned what had made them successful for the game’s first thirty-six minutes and throughout the season. Normally an inside-out team reliant on their big men, the Purdue guards dribbled aimlessly on the perimeter while the forwards unhelpfully stood statuesquely under the basket. Their head coach was no better. As the game went from laugher to dogfight, Matt Painter stood with the hands crossed and his brow furrowed. By then, I had settled into the front of Purdue’s alumni section, moving down from my nosebleed seat. There was a lot of grumbling among the assembled Purdue contingent about what their coach was—and wasn’t—doing. If the adage is that players win games, then coaches are there to prevent them from giving those wins away; the kids may have the talent, but the adults must still lead with poise and purpose. But Painter was frozen in place, too late in calling a timeout and too panicked to make any changes. With four seconds still remaining in regulation after Hagins’s shot to tie, Purdue still had plenty of time to get the ball up court and to an open shooter. Instead, the Purdue player receiving the inbounds pass was utterly unaware of the time, letting three seconds run off as he looked to his coach before firing an impossible shot the length of the court. He was looking for instruction that should already have been given and which never came.
After it was over, the Little Rock players jumped joyously at center court. It was an upset they would remember for the rest of their lives. “Don’t ever count the little guys out,” first-year Little Rock head coach Chris Beard bemusingly reprimanded the press after the game following his team’s 85-83 win in double overtime. These moments happen every tournament—and other giants would fall in stunning and painful fashion later that very day—but they are the reason why the nation intently watches the thirty-two opening round games at their office computers while pretending to do work. My eyes, however, were glued to the Purdue bench as the players and coaches, dazed and glassy-eyed, slouched off the floor and into the locker room. All over their faces, I could see they had suffered the toughest of life lessons at the worst possible moment. Whether your game is cold or the pressure heats up, you’ve got to keep your cool.