If one had the power to deconstruct the unconceivable, to erase the names and the seeds and the predictions and the history, the story from Friday in Omaha, Neb., would have been something far more routine and substantially less memorable.
The matchup between No. 2 seed Missouri and No. 15 seed Norfolk State would have played out as a mere basketball game, no different than any big-playing-small pick-up game dotting college campuses throughout the American plains.
But the reality behind No. 15 seed Norfolk State’s stunning 86-84 upset of No. 2 seed Missouri on Friday made the moment something much greater than, as Missouri coach Frank Haith anticipated going in, merely “lacing ‘em up.” For the same seeds, names, locations and profiles that deliver the NCAA Tournament its annual hoopla were on fine display that afternoon. That craze provided the attached in attendance and the detached across America to enjoy not a basketball game, but a moment that will be forgotten in time only by those who are incapable of remembering.
“Words can’t say enough,” Norfolk State senior guard Rodney McCauley said after the victory, only the fifth in 110 games played by No. 15 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.
McCauley didn’t need words, and nor could he have done much with them, not with the smile plastered across his face.
For half a second, the difference between a smile of finality and a sigh of “Oh, well” hung in the balance of one final shot from the rafters.
The Tigers were left with 2.9 seconds, .5 seconds more than before a lengthy monitor review by the officials. Down 86-84 and on the brink of tournament elimination, the Tigers would spend those 2.9 seconds trying to erase the history they were not looking to make.
Missouri sophomore point guard Phil Pressey, who had just hit a three-pointer to make a game-winning attempt possible, grabbed the in-bounds bounce-pass from brother Matt Pressey. Along the sideline at midcourt, Pressey took two dribbles to near the three-point arch. Then he heaved.
“I thought we had great execution there on the last play and I thought he got a good look,” Haith said after the game.
The ball bounced off the back of the iron and into the hands of Norfolk State senior center and leading scorer Kyle O’Quinn. The party began for a growing green crowd, while the dance died for Phil Pressey and his Tigers.
Phil Pressey spun around and pulled his head in his worn, white jersey before resting it on the scorer’s table. Matt Pressey sulked over and grabbed his younger brother by the jersey, picking him up in one final moment on the court together. The photographers who could think to work snapped away, capsuling a surprising and historic Missouri Tigers campaign that was laid to rest that surprising March day.
What a season it was for the Missouri Tigers, leading up to and even after Friday’s devastating defeat. Seven days prior they had celebrated just their second Big 12 Conference Tournament title, capping off a regular season that, by initial prognostications, was far from meant to be.
In his first year at MU, Haith quickly answered questions about his legitimacy in leading the Tigers to a 30-4 season entering Saturday’s matchup, a campaign that included program records for regular season wins and Big 12 Conference wins. In taking the Tigers all the way from No. 25 in the AP Poll to start the year to No. 3 to end it, Haith was honored by the press as Big 12 Coach of the Year.
“You’re not even a part of these next three weeks if you don’t do something before that,” Haith said before the Big 12 Tournament.
With the best regular season in program history under its belt, Missouri entered the postseason in search of a new program height: a berth in the Final Four.
The expectations refracted across the CenturyLink Center’s shiny gym floor Friday, like the seeds and the expectation and the fan support. Norfolk State, a tiny school of 5,400 undergraduate students snuggled in Norfolk, Va., was playing in its first-ever NCAA Tournament game.
The Spartans had never defeated a ranked opponent entering Friday’s matchup. They finished second in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, a league that was 0-41 against schools from the six power conferences this season.
“… being a first experience you’re taking everything in, being at press conferences and interviews, you have jitter bugs,” O’Quinn said at media day Thursday. “But at the same time you have to enjoy the experience.”
The next day, O’Quinn would make sure to enjoy the experience, all the way to the buzzer and for at least one more game after that.
Norfolk State had never played in an NCAA Tournament game before. The lights, music, hype, seeding and expectation attached to American sports’ hubbub climax were all foreign concepts to a group of Virginia natives that merely showed up Friday looking to play some basketball.
The Spartans looked the part as well, energetic from as early as pregame warmups. They dove after loose balls, towered for rebounds and fought for the entirety of the contest.
For Norfolk State on Friday, perhaps it really was just another game.
“We went out there from the jump; everybody was ready to play and everybody was hyped,” Norfolk State senior guard Brandon Wheeless said.
For all they lacked in historic zeal, the Spartans had plenty of size. Spartan starters measured on average 6 feet 7 inches and 213 pounds. Only one of the Tigers’ top six players in minutes played even measured up to that average.
The embodiment of the Spartan size was O’Quinn himself, the reigning MEAC player of the year and two-time defensive player of the year that measured 6 feet 10 inches and 245 pounds.
His name was little known nationally before Friday. But after a dominant 26-point, 14-rebound showing on national television Friday, the senior center is now a headliner across the country, from the New York Times to USA Today.
The same goes for his team.
Of the millions of user brackets entered in ESPN.com’s Tournament Challenge, 97.8 percent chose Missouri to defeat Norfolk State.
Statistically, it only made sense: No team seeded No. 15 had won a game in the tournament in 11 years. Four had ever done it, while 105 others had fallen victim to conventional wisdom.
“I knew the two-seeds had an upper hand,” senior guard Chris McEachin said after the game. “We thought we had a good chance with the matchup. We thought we were bigger at all positions and we thought we had a good chance of winning this game if we played together.”
Of the ESPN.com user brackets, Missouri tied for the third highest confidence pick for the first round. The other team tied with Missouri with 97.8 confidence was Duke.
And in one day, both went down. Hours after Missouri’s upset loss, No. 2 seed Duke suffered a 75-70 loss to No. 15 seed Lehigh.
In one day, history’s collective little No. 15 seed had improved its record from 4-105 to 6-105. No. 15 seeds went from an 11-year drought to a win streak in the matter of one Friday in March 2012.
As the game wore on, the score remained tight and the clock ticked down to history, the green crowd grew bigger and more colorful.
What had started as the pockets of green grew not in numbers but in support. Surrounding those pockets were Virginia fans who had watched their team lose to Florida in the first-round matchup preceding the game but stuck around to cheer on the little in-stater that could.
As time progressed, a breed of fans familiar to the Tigers began filing into empty seats. Kansas Jayhawk blue meandered through the stands to open sections where it could wait on its own team’s primetime first-round matchup with Detroit while rooting against the old cross-state rival for one more go.
They were just as soon joined by fans of random schools represented by the day’s tournament action, all eager to see the type of mammoth upset that has long delivered March Madness its chilling feel.
“Being the underdog, everybody likes to see the underdog survive, not only survive but win,” O’Quinn said.
Behind O’Quinn’s gigantic steps and titanic play, Norfolk State gave all in attendance what they were looking for — all but Missouri.
O’Quinn’s final touch of the ball will likely be the one he remembers most. As the red light illuminated the perimeter of the backboard, Phil Pressey’s shot came off the back of the iron and into the Norfolk State center’s hands. The game was over, and O’Quinn was running to the center of the court to join his fellow friends in green, brandishing a smile that was suddenly the biggest feature of a very large man.
“When you see the possibility of winning so close, it’s anybody’s ball,” O’Quinn said after the game. “Whoever wants it more is going to get it.”
The ball was O’Quinn’s, the day was Norfolk State’s and the victory was the members’ in green. On the day before St. Patrick’s Day, the team in green led by names such as O’Quinn and McCauley pulled off what no odds could ever favor.
A day later, St. Patrick’s Day would come. The fans that weren’t wearing green at the start of the game would be united in their dress, all while Norfolk State would continue to dance the unlikely dance.