March 11, 2009 10:25 am ET by Kyle Whelliston
If you've been following along, you know that Montana State hadn't won a Big Sky tourney game since 1999 before last weekend, and that they only made the six-team field after posting a 6-10 record (including six losses in their final seven Sky tilts) because of tiebreakers with Eastern Washington. But the Bobcats, who last made the NCAA's in 1996, are one game away from the Dance after knocking off Montana and Weber State on the road, another prognostication-proof reason why March is so mad. What's got into MSU? Defense, for one: they held Weber to 33 percent shooting after allowing the Wildcats to convert 62 percent of their shots in the regular-season finale. Watch for Branden Johnson tonight: the 6-8 junior Bobcat, recently inserted in the starting lineup, was the gamechanger, matching a career high of 16. In the other game, Andre Murray, a key figure in Portland State's win over Gonzaga in December, led all scorers with 21 as the Vikings held off a late charge from Idaho State to reach their second straight final.
In 2008-09, there really weren't two teams as evenly matched on the court yet worlds apart in hype as Butler and Cleveland State. The Vikings beat Syracuse (remember?), but dealt with injuries and fell to a 4-5 record in league play -- at the time, it seemed to kill all hope for a two-bid Horizon. Seven straight wins in February helped put the team in position for a No. 3 seed, and they finally got their title shot against a Bulldog team that had beaten them twice by a total of four points. Fighting on every single possession, CSU broke through the barrier at the 10 minute mark of the second half, and built the slim lead that earned them the championship. The Vikings are indeed dancing for the first time since 1986, when they went two rounds in.
In Winston-Salem, Lamar Twitty -- a name you might remember from the 2007 league championship team -- shot 8-for-11 (20 points) and Florida A&M broke it open against Howard in the second half to advance to a quarterfinal with top seed Morgan State. Delaware State's 32 points were the lowest total in a conference tourney game in 16 years, a depth not plumbed since UNC Wilmington scored 33 against George Mason in the 2001 CAA tourney. The Hornets, recent proud champions of the league, scored 16 in each half.
In Cleveland on Tuesday, four Western teams were eliminated -- but Central Michigan survived because it was playing another Western team. The Chippewas dropped Eastern Michigan with a 51 percent shooting performance and 17 from senior Marcus Van. Some Westies proved difficult outs: Kent State, without second leading scorer Chris Singletary, had to come from behind to erase Northern Illinois, and Akron needed overtime to overcome its own poor shooting as well as a Toledo team that won half as many MAC games (five) as the Zips did. Ohio, the East's last-place team, had the easiest time of the trio, holding off Western Michigan with four double-figure scorers and by getting to the line a lot. All six Eastern teams are in the quarters, and the ersatz West championship will be decided Thursday between CMU and automatic No. 2 seed Ball State -- both 7-9 finishers during the regular season. The league takes a day off before the top four seeds get to town.
Bison Fever looked all but cured last night, as Oakland's perpetually hot shooting (62 percent in the first half) built the Golden Grizzlies a lead that reached 14 points before halftime. But then came The Clampdown: North Dakota State held Oakland to eight points in the final 10 minutes of the game, allowing the Bison to score 18 to sneak by . And those last two will live in mid-major lore forever: after Oakland's Keith Benson made a two-point dunk shot to tie the game at 64 with 12 seconds left, NDSU did not call time out and rushed down the floor. Ben Woodside, a double-MMBOW, slid behind a Lucas Moormann screen and drained the 18-foot winner. North Dakota State, in its first year of postseason eligibility, is going to the NCAA Tournament.
In a matchup of two teams that both made the NCAA Tournament, Western Kentucky scored 11 of the game's first 13 points and looked headed for a blowout. For a while, the only drama was whether or not Bally was going to get on TV (answer: yes!). But South Alabama used timely pressure defense and put up a strong run out of the break, while shooting 50 percent -- in what was his last meaningful collegiate game, former Cincinnati transfer DeAndre Coleman capped his strong senior season by played his heart out for Team USA, scoring 27 points. But to be honest, WKU was toying with the Jags, using short bursts of team effort whenever they needed to push its lead back out to double digits. This is the seventh Sun Belt tourney championship for the Hilltoppers, and the school's 21st NCAA appearance. The 24-8 Tops, on a seven-game win streak and boasting a win over Louisville, will certainly receive bracket positioning as good or better than last year's No. 12.
In Hoops Nation's late game, Fresno State came from behind in Reno to send eliminate Hawaii. The Rainbow Warriors were up for most of the game and led by 11 in the second half, but the Bulldogs closed matters with a late 10-1 run that stunned Bob Nash's squad and sent Hawaii back to its island home. Fresno's Dwight O'Neil hit what ended up being the game-winning shot witn 21 seconds left.
On Tap Tonight
For two brief and fleeting hours today, in between the two first-round sessions, this not-adjusted-for-inflation league will indeed be the grand old Atlantic 10 once again... only 12 teams made it onto the bracket (sorry, Fordham and George Washington), and two more will be eliminated by dinner time. This was always our favorite day of Championship Fortnight back when the event was in Philly -- just leave your cell phone at home and sneak away for a solid day of hoops. If you're stuck at work or otherwise can't make it to Atlantic City, check out College ChalkTalk's interactive journal, which will be just like being there, without the $8.99 buffets.
12:00 pm ET -  Saint Louis 17-13 (8-8) vs.  La Salle 18-12 (9-7) | Preview
Recent: 03/07/2009 LAS 68 @SLU 62 01/26/2008 SLU 81 @LAS 74
2:30 pm ET -  Charlotte 11-19 (5-11) vs.  Saint Joseph's 16-14 (9-7) | Preview
Recent: 01/18/2009 CHAR 69 @SJU 78 01/16/2008 SJU 66 @CHAR 70
6:30 pm ET -  Massachusetts 12-17 (7-9) vs.  Duquesne 18-11 (9-7) | Preview
Recent: 02/25/2009 DUQ 94 @MASS 77 01/30/2008 MASS 94 @DUQ 80
9:00 pm ET -  Saint Bonaventure 15-14 (6-10) vs.  Richmond 17-14 (9-7) | Preview
Recent: 01/17/2009 BONA 71 @RICH 67 02/27/2008 RICH 82 @BONA 71
Adding to the drama tonight is that Montana State, the lowest Big Sky seed to make the title game since 1997 (Cal State Northridge), played the defending champions tough this season in a home-and-home split. Junior Bobcat guard Will Bynum's been a thorn for PSU, scoring a combined 40 points on 12-for-19 shooting in the two meetings. Portland State is one win away from matching last year's total of 23, but there were plenty of missed chances. Gonzaga win aside, the Vikings were 4-4 away from home in league play.
Here's the Big West's funky jazz bracket, which will be played out in Anaheim once again. It's been a tough year for the league's blue and gold-wearing teams from the University of California satellite system, as Irvine, Riverside and relative newbie Davis will all be trying to climb the ladder to the second round tonight. The other participant is the league champion: Fullerton lost three of its rotation from the 2008 squad that made the Big Dance -- star Josh Akognon came back (23.5 ppg), but was relied upon too heavily and struggled with his shot. A continued lack of size really hurt this year: CSF went from being the surprise best rebounding team in the BWC last season to the second-worst (28.8 rpg).
9:00 pm ET -  California-Irvine 12-18 (8-8) vs.  California-Davis 12-18 (7-9) | Preview
Recent: 02/12/2009 UCI 76 @UCD 85 01/17/2009 UCD 88 @UCI 85
11:30 pm ET -  Cal State Fullerton 14-16 (7-9) vs.  California-Riverside 17-12 (8-8) | Preview
Recent: 02/26/2009 CSF 60 @UCR 63 01/31/2009 UCR 52 @CSF 58
Just so you get this straight: the first game of the day is a first round tilt, the winner of which will get No. 3 Norfolk State tomorrow, which will be extremely well-rested. Tonight, the two top seeds play quarterfinal ball against the first-round winners from last night, and both winners will get an extra day of rest before Friday's semis.
3:00 pm ET -  Bethune-Cookman 16-15 (10-8) vs.  Maryland-Eastern Shore 7-22 (4-13) | Preview
Recent: 02/23/2009 UMES 52 @BETH 69 01/26/2009 BETH 58 @UMES 55
7:00 pm ET -  Florida A&M 10-20 (7-11) vs.  Morgan State 20-11 (14-3) | Preview
Recent: 02/14/2009 FAMU 57 @MORG 75 01/17/2009 FAMU 63 @MORG 58
9:30 pm ET -  Hampton 16-15 (10-8) vs.  South Carolina State 16-13 (11-7) | Preview
Recent: 02/14/2009 HAMP 71 @SCST 74 01/17/2009 SCST 60 @HAMP 74
The NEC crowns a champion this evening, and it's a tasty matchup of the 2008 semifinal that sent a clearly superior Robert Morris team -- one that had beaten Boston College earlier in the year -- to the NIT. Mount Saint Mary's, the No. 4 seed at the time, delivered a second-half whackdown that devastated the Colonials (they were inspired, to say the least) and set the stage for a run to a P.I.G. victory. RMU got its revenge in two close regular-season games, but this is the one people will remember. Robert Morris, two years into the Mike Rice era, has not made the NCAA Tournament since 1992.
We haven't attended the SWAC tourney yet, but from all accounts it's not an event that's tried very hard. The MEAC might have its problems drawing fans, but it's got a good model: like the super-successful CIAA, it puts on events all week and makes it a big reunion party for alumni and friends. At least now, this conference is trying to throw money at people to get them to come, and has a snappy tourney logo and slogan ("Go hard or go home"). Progress. Two men's quarterfinal matches take place in amongst two women's games, and both top seeds play: Jackson State and Alabama State had the best and tightest regular-season championship battle since JSU and Mississippi Valley State combined for six SWAC losses in 1996. Jackson earned a No. 15 seed that year.
3:30 pm ET -  Jackson State 16-14 (15-3) vs.  Texas Southern 7-24 (7-11) | Preview
Recent: 02/14/2009 TXSO 63 @JSU 72 01/17/2009 JSU 76 @TXSO 63
9:00 pm ET -  Alabama A&M 8-18 (6-12) vs.  Alabama State 19-9 (16-2) | Preview
Recent: 02/14/2009 ALAM 43 @ALST 87 01/17/2009 ALST 69 @ALAM 57
Photos: JS Robinson/wkusports.com; GoBison.com; csuvikings.com
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