Game 098:(5) Michigan State 89, (12) Old Dominion 81 NCAA Tournament, First Round (Austin Bracket) Friday, March 18, 2005 DCU Center - Worcester, MA
Worcester, Oklahoma City, Nashville and Charlotte are locations that have absolutely nothing to do with one another. For a single weekend, though, they were invisibly linked like a constellation, a lopsided square drawn with invisible lines. Bound together by each burgh's sacred pledge and shared solemn duty to winnow eight Division I basketball teams to two, these four towns became fast friends, sister cities.
During the nine o'clock hour in Massachusetts' second-largest municipality, the 15,000 residents of the Worcester sub-regional caught their breaths, attempted to recover from what they'd seen. They'd just taken in a historic game, one that would find a home in ESPN Classic's library forever, and they were loopy and exhausted. Impartial observers spoke amongst themselves in hushed and reverent tones, ranking the game and performances near the tops of their all-time Top Tens, arguing about which three-pointer would be used in future Pontiac commercials, Mopa Njila's game-tier or Sorrentine's game-winner. Meanwhile, a storm of yellow and green plunged into the sea of orange, as Vermont fans snapped up tickets for Sunday's second round; members of the fallen and bitter Syracuse contingent were happy to charge them double-face.
After a half-hour break, the fifth-seeded Spartans of Michigan State slunk out on the floor while 12 Old Dominion hit the hardcourt to booming applause. The UVM contingent was rooting for the seemingly easier path to the Sweet Sixteen, but everyone else (save for isolated pockets of MSU faithful) had seen one instance of timeless upset magic, and they were hungry for more.
In the first half, the blue-shirted Monarchs were eager to oblige. They came out hard and hungry, charging out to a double-digit lead. ODU was buoyed by the emotional return of starting small forward Arnaud Dahi, who had badly injured his left shoulder in the Colonial Athletic Association title game. Now he wore a large thick brace that wrapped around his entire upper arm, colored a light green. It was a few shades away from Spartan green, but nobody raised a fuss.
After a hyper-extended 20-minute halftime, as the second half began, murmurs and rumbles rippled through the crowd. These were sharp shock waves - rumor had it that out in spiritually-linked Oklahoma City, little Bucknell of the Patriot League was holding on to a lead mighty Kansas. It wasn't long before the public address announcer confirmed the story.
"Updated score in the second half," came the voice of God. "With 6:50 to go... Bucknell 50, Kansas 48."
Upset fever swept through the building, and it was quite a virulent strain. Fans excitedly tapped at their thin silver mobile telephones, fighting the partially-jammed reception in a tin box built prior to the wireless age, jostling with the awkward two-button interfaces.
But it was the folks with the Blackberries became the stars of the show on this night, the most popular denizens of this particular state of Hoops Nation. Effortlessly flicking through series of menus, they were able to a running play-by-play to anyone who asked for it. Making their owners pillars of prestige, , justified every penny of the gadgets' purchase prices.
Those who wielded the blue handhelds were even a minute or two ahead of the public address announcer, and being so made them mighty magnets of attention. After another score update, folks would wheel around. "OK, so what's the score, really?"
Every new piece of information, each of which featured the news that Bucknell was up by one or two points with a dwindling clock, elicited a massive eruption from the crowd.
"Updated score in the second half... With 1:57 to go... Bucknell 60, Kansas 56."
It was the "whoaaa" of a roller-coaster paired with a concurrent exasperation that can only come when one realizes that their office-pool brackets are about to be torn asunder. The massive indrawn breath could have resulted in a dangerous oxygen deficit in the building.
John Feinstein, author of The Last Amateurs, had been seated directly at center court on press row all day. At the three-minute update, he quickly gathered up his belongings and sped back into the media room, to watch the end of Bucknell-Kansas. Maybe he had been attracted to the Vermont mystique and was writing a story, because he'd spent the two first round sessions there in Worcester. But the Patriot League's most tireless defender had simply picked the wrong place to go - the Bison seemed poised to win its first-ever Tournament game, and the conference's as well.
"Updated score in the second half... Final... Bucknell 64, Kansas 63."
And when the final score came, the thrill of virtual proximity was palpable. The crowd cheered long and loud, just as the sympathetics in Charlotte and Nashville must have been doing at that same exact moment. As the Bison celebrated on a court far away in a joyful orange and blue mass of humanity, three packed arenas arose as one to join them.
But free to focus on the game at hand, the paying customers in Worcester could see that Old Dominion had faded fast. While the fans' attention and energy were being directed elsewhere, Aussie bigman Alex Loughton missed several key jump shots, and Dahi had been coach-cleared to unleash several threes with his bionic robot arm, all of which were just a bit off-line. The game's pace had slowed to a punishing crawl, as both teams ahd achieved the double-bonus with seven minutes left to go. Michigan State was doing just enough to pull away while ODU's weariness rolled in like a cold fog.
But most did not stay for the end - once the score in Oklahoma City was announced, the stands quickly emptied out. They were off to find out what really happened to make the Jayhawks fall, to watch the Bucknell highlights on SportsCenter, and also to check the sequencing on the Vermont reels, just to settle any outstanding wagers.
In sports bars and golf courses and $800 nosebleed seats at Final Fours, members of the 15,000-strong contingent in Worcester that evening might someday be asked where they were the night when Bucknell shocked mighty Kansas.
"Well, I was at the game, sorta," they might answer. "I guess you could say I was there in spirit."