March Madness. The phrase is definitively idiomatic, two words that have proliferated the English-speaking world to such a degree that every third advertisement this time of year seems to feature it - covertly know, of course, because the Empire known as the NCAA has put it on double-secret trademark status. But for each of us, there's a moment when the third month of the year truly became insane, the craziness of college basketball conspiring to irrecoverably affect us, give us the disease for which only more tourney action can satiate the craving. We all had that moment of infection, the mania setting in for good.
Mine was in ninth grade. I'd first noticed the NCAA tournament in middle school, a wise history teacher letting me watch Kentucky and St Bonaventure go to double overtime instead of heading to the next class. But in the spring of 2002, I hadn't witnessed a whole first day of tourney action in its entirety, what with being in school and learning and whatnot.
Thank goodness for snow days in Minnesota. Thursday, we were let out of class early, sent home to avoid the oncoming storm. I caught some games then, but Friday was a complete day of unexpected viewing time, a chance for unfettered access to the tournament. And it was a doozy. Other games proved interesting, but the Florida-Creighton affair made an indelible stamp.
When the game stared, I didn't know what state Creighton was in. But two hours later, when Kyle Korver fouled out, I bemoaned this gritty mid-major missing a golden chance of taking out the highly regarded Gators. When they collectively fought through the first overtime, I was cautiously optimistic. With less than thirty seconds, up 82-80, Florida failed to inbound, I knew the Bluejays had one final shot. And when Terrell Taylor, fearless all game, rose up and fired home a three-ball, then mimicked an airplane as he flew around the backcourt, I was in hook, line and sinker.
Fast forward ten years to now, as I watched the tourney in person for the second time. I'd already watched two Mid-Majority teams go down earlier, but I had high hopes for the Badlands Conference representative, South Dakota State. I'd kept my on them from afar as they RLU-ed Washington in dominant fashion, taken second place in the Summit, and finally finished off the Leathernecks of Western Illinois to reach the NCAAs for the first time in school (and state) history. Sure, they'd be playing a Baylor team who featured (at minimum) three NBA players on their front line, but I had faith.
The game played out in a manner of which I couldn't have imagined. SDSU, in their first tourney game, came out not tepid, but like gangbusters. Two points begat two more threes, and Scott Drew, Baylor's coach, was already calling timeout down 8-0. Nate Wolters, the Jackrabbits' best player, wasn't even doing much - it was Griffin Callahan, Chad White, Jordan Dykstra, each pitching in on offense with a timely bucket, then hustling back, defending, boxing out, and outperforming an underwhelming Bears squad.
That hustle couldn't translate into size and strength, unfortunately, and the Bears began to work away on a 19-7 Jackrabbits advantage. Wolters' second personal with ten minutes left in the half hurt, as did a cold streak from 3 point land. Suddenly, 19-7 became 21-19, then 24-22 Baylor. Wolters returned, but looked tentative, and the perimeter play of Baylor - particularly the shooting of their comb-over Canadian guard, Brady Heslip, who kept hitting threes - left me hoping halftime would come before things got too out of hand.
Thankfully, it did with the Jackrabbits only down 8. The neutral crowd, ecstatic earlier when SDSU was up, was a bit more demure, and Baylor's contingent had re-vocalized, but I had trust that the situation could be remedied soon. South Dakota State still had an intensity, a focus around it that I simply didn't see in Baylor; there was no entitlement, only humility, and I kept the faith.
The second half seemingly played out much like the first ended, however - Baylor keeping those pesky Jackrabbits at bay, a well-timed triple or putback being the difference. Every spurt was met, and soon a 3 point deficit became eleven. Down ten at the under-4 timeout, though, I believed. South Dakota State would make a run.
And a glorious run they made indeed. Callahan finally put down another 3, and after Heslip finally misfired and Perry Jones III let the rebound slip through his lottery-pick fingers, there was another chance to close. Wolters - brilliant in flashes this day, but also likely ruing afterwards a couple lost balls and missed shots - clanged a triple, but a Baylor charge brought things back. Then, Chad White of SDSU nailed another three, and finally, FINALLY! South Dakota State was within 4.
Games at this juncture either become part of the tournament's lore or pushed aside for better stories. The fate of this delightful contest unfortunately turned to the latter; while the Jacks got another stop, they couldn't hit any more superhoops, and Baylor escaped.
But I hope someone out there watched today - in the stands, on pixelvision - and came away impressed with the team from Brookings who showed up and ably demonstrated why this is the greatest tournament in sports, why March captures the spirit. Why, when Chad White hit that three, the crowd exploded, the collective consciousness of basketball pivoted to the Pit, and why we keep coming back. Why whether it's Creighton in 2002, George Mason in 2006, Butler the past two seasons, Lehigh and Norfolk State on Friday, or valiant efforts like South Dakota State's, we keep getting hooked. It might end in a loss, but games like this one have no losers. That's why we've come back.
And that's why we will again.
BAYLOR 68, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 60 03/15/2012
SOUTH DAKOTA STATE 27-8 (15-3) -- G. Callahan 2-6 1-4 7; B. Carlson 3-8 2-2 9; N. Wolters 7-13 4-6 19; C. White 5-12 0-0 15; J. Dykstra 2-7 0-0 5; T. Fiegen 1-2 0-0 2; M. Heemstra 0-0 0-0 0; T. Prince 1-2 1-2 3. Totals 21-50 8-14 60. BAYLOR 28-7 (12-6) -- B. Heslip 5-10 2-2 17; P. Jones III 1-6 0-3 2; P. Jackson 6-11 4-5 18; A. Walton 1-6 0-0 2; Q. Miller 4-9 2-2 10; Q. Acy 2-2 0-0 4; D. Bello 0-3 4-6 4; A. Jones 4-5 2-2 11. Totals 23-52 14-20 68.
Three-point goals: SDST 10-30 (G. Callahan 2-6; N. Wolters 1-6; B. Carlson 1-4; C. White 5-9; J. Dykstra 1-5), BAY 8-20 (A. Jones 1-2; B. Heslip 5-10; D. Bello 0-1; P. Jackson 2-6; Q. Miller 0-1); Rebounds: SDST 17 (T. Fiegen 5), BAY 31 (P. Jones 11); Assists: SDST 16 (T. Fiegen 5), BAY 9 (A. Walton 3); Total Fouls -- SDST 17, BAY 16; Fouled Out: SDST-G. Callahan; BAY-None.