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MARCH MADNESS / NCAA TOURNAMENT | COLLEGE BASKETBALL

But for the Breaks It Could Be Shattering

March 22, 2001|CHRIS DUFRESNE

You don't think a basketball season is a fragile thing?

If not for a play, or a gut-check moment, or a momentum swing, half the schools in this year's Sweet 16 might not have even made the NCAA tournament.

Consider:

* Temple: The Owls were 18-12 entering the Atlantic 10 Conference tournament and probably needed to reach the final to make their 12th consecutive NCAA appearance.

After beating Dayton in the Atlantic 10's opening round, Temple trailed George Washington by two points in the final seconds when Lynn Greer, standing beyond the three-point arc, leaned into a defender and coaxed a foul and three free throws. George Washington Coach Tom Penders was so irate at the call he had to be physically restrained by conference Commissioner Linda Bruno.

Greer made all three shots, Temple won, 77-76, defeated Massachusetts in the conference championship and, two wins later, faces Penn State Friday night in a South Regional semifinal.

* Penn State: The Nittany Lions were 17-10 entering the Big Ten Conference tournament, coming off a 7-9 conference season that included an ugly loss at Northwestern.

Conventional wisdom held the Nittany Lions had to defeat Michigan in the first round of the Big Ten tournament to clinch an NCAA bid.

Penn State won, 82-80, when Gyasi Cline-Heard caught a teammate's airball and scored the game-winner in the waning seconds. Only that play, perhaps, enabled Penn State to rubber-stamp its NCAA entry with a second-round win over Michigan State.

* Gonzaga. Forget that the Bulldogs are one of only three teams to make the Sweet 16 the last three seasons, and that the others are Duke and Michigan State.

Had Gonzaga not defeated Santa Clara, 80-77, in the West Coast Conference championship game, America's Sweetheart would not have made the NCAA tournament. Here's the thing about that WCC title game: Gonzaga was losing, 26-16, in the first half and the score was tied, 48-48, in the second half.

* Maryland. Sure, the Terrapins look good now, but this was the University of Blown Gasket on Jan. 27 after Maryland blew a 10-point lead against Duke at home and lost in overtime. After the game, analyst Dick Vitale brushed by Coach Gary Williams and said, "See you in the NIT."

Bad vibes?

"I know how I felt walking out of the gym that night," Williams said Wednesday. "That game wouldn't go away."

Maryland lost four of its next five, bottoming out with a deplorable Feb. 14 home loss to Florida State. The defeat dropped Maryland to 15-9 overall and 6-6 in Atlantic Coast Conference play.

"When we lost to Florida State, we knew we were going to have to turn our season around or we weren't going to the NCAA tournament," guard Juan Dixon said.

Maryland has lost only once since, by two points to Duke, in the ACC tournament.

* Georgetown. The Hoyas were leaking oil as late as Feb. 17. They had recently been pulverized at Providence, 103-79, and followed up with a home loss to Villanova, dropping the Hoyas to 6-5 in the Big East. A subsequent road defeat at lowly Rutgers might have spelled the death of Georgetown's tournament run.

It almost happened.

Rutgers guard Todd Billet had a chance to tie the score with a three-point basket but, before he could shoot, Anthony Perry poked the ball loose and Georgetown won, 76-63.

Georgetown was still on shaky NCAA ground until an important March 4 win at Notre Dame.

* Cincinnati: How good were the Bearcats this season?

"There were moments I thought we wouldn't win another game," Coach Bob Huggins said.

One moment came Jan. 24, when Cincinnati was booed off the floor in the wake of a 63-54 loss to Louisville, ending the Bearcats' 34-game winning streak at home.

"Coach said we deserved it," Bearcat guard Kenny Satterfield said of the boos. "After that game, we sat down, as a team, looked at each other and said we have to give our all as a team. That's what we've been doing ever since."

Cincinnati responded three days later with a season-saving, 78-72 overtime win at No. 9 Wake Forest.

Cincinnati was 12-6 after the Louisville loss and is 13-3 since, including two lopsided wins over Brigham Young and Kent State to reach the Sweet 16.

* USC: It's the Sweet 16 now, but do you recall Sour 17? We speak of Feb. 17, the dreadful day the Trojans suffered a 44-point home loss to Arizona. USC then followed with a lethargic, 15-point loss at Oregon State.

Coach Henry Bibby was apoplectic. He wouldn't allow players to talk to the media, reportedly after forward Brian Scalabrine said, "We may be afraid of success."

The Oregon State loss dropped USC to 17-8.

Two days later, USC trailed Oregon, 72-60, with 5:22 left before rallying to win in overtime, almost willed to victory by David Bluthenthal's 29-point performance.

USC might not have recovered from a loss in Eugene. Instead, USC returned home, played No. 1 Stanford to a two-point loss at home and has since won five consecutive games.

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