Commentary

Tornado tourney has nothing on 'Tampa Turmoil'

Originally Published: March 22, 2008
By Mark Schlabach | ESPN.com

TAMPA, Fla. -- A week ago, I watched a tornado blow a hole in the roof of the Georgia Dome.

Over the next 48 hours, I watched Georgia, the SEC's worst team (and my alma mater, no less), win two games in one day and another the following day to win the SEC tournament.

Little did I know I was only getting warmed up.

Perhaps I should have known I was headed to even more dramatic developments in Tampa. Maybe I should have known when I sat down at a bar in Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson airport and ordered a beer, then realized Tennessee Titans coach Jeff Fisher was sitting in the chair next to me, eating nachos and drinking red wine.

Because before Friday's NCAA tournament games at St. Pete Times Forum, the most miraculous thing I'd ever watched was the Titans' "Music City Miracle" finish against the Buffalo Bills in an NFL playoff game on Jan. 8, 2000. But not even Frank Wycheck's lateral to Kevin Dyson for a 75-yard touchdown in the final seconds can match what I saw Friday in Tampa.

Four games. Four upsets. Two overtimes. Two buzzer-beaters.

Since the NCAA started to seed teams in 1979, never had there been more than two upsets in the first round in the same city. Tampa produced twice that many on a day college basketball fans will not soon forget.

"It's incredible," said Villanova coach Jay Wright, whose No. 12 seed Wildcats upset No. 5 seed Clemson 75-69 in the nightcap. "I'm sure this is going to be talked about. They're going to have some name for this -- the 'Tampa Turmoil' or something."

Remarkably, Villanova's dramatic comeback from an 18-point deficit was upstaged twice earlier in the day. No. 12 seed Western Kentucky started the madness by stunning No. 5 seed Drake 101-99 in overtime. Senior Ty Rogers, from the tiny hamlet of Eddyville, Ky., made a 26-foot 3-pointer at the buzzer to win it.

After the Hilltoppers' miraculous win, I began to write my column, figuring I'd been handed an easy day after last week's events. A dramatic finish in the first game? I'll coast the rest of the way.

It didn't take long for my colleagues to voice their envy. Text messages began filtering into my cell phone from around the country.

"The SEC tournament wasn't enough?" they asked. "Story hog."

As I finished my column about Western Kentucky's unlikely new hero, I watched San Diego go chest to chest with Connecticut. The Huskies, an Elite Eight participant on my tournament bracket, lost their best player in the game's first 10 minutes. Junior guard A.J. Price hurt his knee with about 11 minutes to go in the half and never returned.

The Huskies certainly could have used him at the end. After going ahead 69-68 on Jerome Dyson's two foul shots with 10 seconds to play, the Huskies lost when De'Jon Jackson made a fade-away jumper with 1.2 seconds left. Jackson, a sophomore from Fresno, Calif., had missed seven of his first eight shots.

But, of course, Jackson found the bottom of the net on his last attempt, giving the Toreros a 70-69 victory, their first win in the NCAA tournament.

After a 30-minute break, which everyone needed to catch their breath, No. 13 seed Siena provided the most stunning -- but least dramatic -- upset of the day: an 83-62 pasting of No. 4 seed Vanderbilt. Everyone but the Saints believed they were the underdogs.

"I really don't consider it an upset," Siena guard Tay Fisher said.

Back in Villanova's locker room, Wright couldn't believe how events had transpired.

"We're watching those games," Wright said. "We're watching the 5-12 [matchups] and hoping the 12 doesn't win, because we know that usually happens. We see Western Kentucky win. We're like, 'Now we can't do it.' And then you watch UConn lose. Then you watch Siena do it. We're like, 'It's not going to happen four times in a row; there's no way.'"

Somehow, Villanova made it happen again.

After a day of such madness, anything seemed possible. Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel wanted the building to be the site of next year's BCS National Championship Game. Sports writers were hitting on Clemson's cheerleaders. Heck, the Memphis Tigers even believed they could make free throws.

"It's a great feeling," Villanova guard Corey Fisher said. "Who wouldn't want to be in this moment?"

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.

Mark Schlabach | email

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