The last time North Carolina Charlotte defeated Cincinnati, it was considered a fluke.
But Charlotte's 55-52 victory over No. 7-ranked Cincinnati Friday night in the semifinals of the Conference USA tournament at Birmingham, Ala., will be looked at differently because of how the final seconds unfolded.
The 49ers beat Cincinnati, 62-60, on Jan. 14 at Charlotte when a three-point basket by the Bearcats in the final seconds was waved off by a referee who ruled he had stopped play. The conference later said the referee had blown an inadvertent whistle.
This time, Cincinnati was trailing 53-52 with four seconds left when Melvin Levett took a three-point shot, and missed. Galen Young got the rebound and, after being fouled with 1.8 seconds, made two free throws. Cincinnati (26-5) couldn't get off a final shot and saw its hopes for a No. 2 seeding in an NCAA regional get seriously jeopardized.
"First of all, there was not inadvertent whistle today," said Charlotte Coach Bobby Lutz. "We have tremendous respect for Cincinnati and their players, but we beat them today."
Charlotte (21-10) plays Louisville (19-9), a 77-68 winner over Alabama Birmingham (20-11), in today's final. Louisville has won eight of 10 games since having a postseason ban lifted by the NCAA on Feb. 5.
Mateen Cleaves' shots were again clanking at the United Center in Chicago and Michigan State was again struggling in the quarterfinals, just like in last year's tournament when the Spartans were eliminated in the same round.
However, Cleaves managed to make an awkward floating shot in the lane with 37 seconds remaining that provided the decisive points for Michigan State, the regular-season champion and second-ranked team in the nation, in a 61-59 victory over scrappy Northwestern.
Northwestern (15-13) had previously lost by 17 to Michigan State (27-4) but held a 59-56 lead with less than two minutes left primarily because of 6-foot-11, sixth-year senior Evan Eschmeyer, who had 30 points.
Morris Peterson's three-point basket tied the score, 59-59, with 1:42 left, and after Northwestern freshman Steve Lepore missed a rushed shot, Cleaves found a seam in the Wildcat zone defense, drove through and put up a high-arcing shot that resulted in only his second basket in nine attempts.
After two timeouts by Northwestern, Antonio Smith blocked a layup by David Newman, another Wildcat freshman. Lepore retrieved the ball and put up a desperation shot that missed and Smith got the rebound as time ran out.
"Every game, all the shots are not going to go in," said Cleaves, a 41% shooter. "I wasn't thinking about the last shot. I was just thinking of getting the ball on the rim and giving it a chance to go in.
Cleaves has made only seven of 44 shots in three games at the United Center, including last year's quarterfinal loss to Minnesota.
"My job is to run the team. My job is not to lead the team in scoring," said Cleaves, who had six points.
Michigan State, which has won 16 in a row, plays today against the last team it lost to--No. 19 Wisconsin, a 74-60 winner over No. 20 Iowa (18-9). Wisconsin (22-8) made 61% of its shots and got a combined nine for 13 on three-point attempts and 44 points from guards Sean Mason, Ty Calderwood and Jon Bryant.
In the other semifinal, No. 11 Ohio State (23-7) plays surprising Illinois (13-17). Ohio State, which had the best win-loss turnaround in Big Ten history in going from 1-15 last season to 12-4, had four double-figure scorers in an 87-69 victory over Michigan (12-19). Illinois, which finished last in the regular season, was a 82-66 winner over No. 17 Indiana (22-10). The Illini had a 51-26 rebounding advantage.
The good news for North Carolina State (18-12) was that it probably earned an NCAA bid with a 66-52 victory over Wake Forest (16-13) in the quarterfinals at Charlotte, N.C. The bad news is that North Carolina State runs into a buzzsaw in the semifinals in No. 1 Duke (30-1). The Blue Devils have defeated ACC opponents by an average of 26 points, including a 31-point victory the last time they played the Wolfpack. . . . No. 5 Maryland (26-4) overwhelmed Florida State (13-17) with its full-court pressure, converting 23 turnovers in 26 points in a 93-69 victory. Maryland's semifinal opponent will be No. 15 North Carolina (23-8), a 78-49 winner over Georgia Tech (15-5).