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Installment #16: It's Back Baby!

After more than seven hundred days, we finally had NCAA tournament basketball to enjoy on Thursday. It was great! It was the First Four of the field of 68, and these games aren't usually very entertaining. In past years, these games that feature four No. 16 seeds and four No. 11 seeds are played in the middle of the week. Like on Tuesday and Wednesday night. Only hardcore college BB fans like myself watch. Everyone else starts watching the tournament on Thursday when the "real action" begins.

This being the pandemic-weird season that it is though, the First Four took place during prime time on Thursday night and I think each of the four games delivered. We had four teams come back from double-digit deficits to take a lead, with three of them actually getting a win. We had two HBCU's advance to the field of 64 for the first time. We had a school win it's first NCAA tournament game in fifty years and we had an overtime game. I was elated. Not only because there were some great games, but if I had any doubts before Thursday night, they were all swept away. The tournament is back baby!

In the first game of the evening/night, the Texas Southern Tigers beat the Mount St. Mary’s Mountaineers 60-52 to advance. Texas Southern, a historically black university in Houston, has won ten straight games overall including the Southwestern Athletic Conference championship last week. Thursday's win was the program's second tournament win ever.

The Tigers found themselves down 30-20 at halftime to the Mountaineers. But strong play from forward John Walker III and guard Jordan Gilliam, led Texas Southern on two second-half spurts to pull away. Walker scored a season high 19 points and grabbed nine rebounds. Gilliam added 12 points for the Tigers in the win. Texas Southern will play the No. 1 seed in the east regional Michigan Wolverines on Saturday.

In the other game involving No. 16 seeds, the Norfolk State Spartans hold on to beat the Appalachian State Mountaineers 54-53. Norfolk State led most of the way as Appalachian State made just 6 of 36 three pointers in the game. The Spartans built a 19-point lead in the first half and led by as many as 18 points in the second, but they blew the lead and the Mountaineers led 51-45 with 5:48 remaining. The only App State points after that were two Adrian Delph free throws with 1:03 left that made it 53-52 Mountaineers. But then Spartans guard Devante Carter hit his only two free throws of the night with 8.6 seconds on the clock and Appalachian State missed its final two shots as time expired.

So the Norfolk State Spartans, the winners of the Mideastern Athletic Conference, completed a two-game sweep by historically black colleges and universities on the same day in the NCAA tournament. These schools often have representation in the early rounds of the dance, but rarely do they post wins. But this year, two of them win on the same day, on the same floor, literally hours within each other. I gotta represent for the HBCU's! Next up for Norfolk State, they will take on the No. 1 seed in the west and the #1 overall team in the tournament, the Gonzaga Bulldogs.

The Drake Bulldogs came into the tournament after winning the Missouri Valley Conference and posting 25 victories on the season, the second-most in the field behind Gonzaga. They had to play another No. 11 seed and their former conference rival, the Wichita State Shockers, now of the American Athletic Conference. In what ended up being an intense, back-and-forth matchup, Drake held on to beat Wichita State 53-52. Guard Joseph Yesufu led the Bulldogs with 21 points and was instrumental in helping them erase an 18-6 early deficit. Drake only trailed 21-20 at the half.

The second half was a half of runs by both teams as they alternated momentum to jockey for winning position at the end of the game. Shockers guard Dexter Dennis drilled a three-pointer with 8 seconds left to trim Drake's lead to one. Then Yesufu was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving the Shockers a chance to win. Guard Alterique Gilbert tried a three-pointer which he missed off the front of the rim as time elapsed. It was Drake's first tournament win since they defeated the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on March 18, 1971. This year's Bulldogs will play the No. 6 seed in the west USC Trojans on Saturday.

The final game of the night, was a game that many had pegged as "the game" before tipoff at around 10 PM eastern time. The two No. 11 seeds UCLA Bruins and Michigan State Spartans took the court to do battle. Many believed that the Spartans, who were having a down year by their blue blood standards, would find a way to beat a UCLA team that owned a losing streak and that had limped its way into the tournament with injuries. But in a thrilling game in which the Bruins roared back from an eleven-point deficit, UCLA prevailed 86-80 in overtime as Thursday night turned into Friday morning.

Bruins guard/forward Jaime Jaquez completed a three-point play that tied the game at 77 with 28.7 seconds left. Both teams failed to win the game in regulation. But the UCLA Bruins scored the first four points in overtime on the way to the victory. The Bruins now have a date with the No. 6-seeded BYU Cougars on Saturday night.

That last game, the UCLA/Michigan State affair, finished at close to 1:00 in the morning. I know because I stayed up and checked it out on SiriusXM. The next day, or a few hours later was pretty much the same as the field of 64 got started yesterday and continues today. This as I've said before is the best time in sports. Like Christmas. But more on this later.

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