Basketball success is not a thing which has eluded the member teams of the Mountain West Conference throughout history. UNLV, of course, has been to four Final Fours and won the whole shebang once. Wyoming's also won an NCAA championship, as well as a national championship a few years before the tournament era began. Fresno State's won the NIT. San Diego State won an NAIA title back when that was actually still a somewhat major accomplishment even in context (i.e., seven years before Louisville won it). New Mexico doesn't have any hardware to show for it, but they do have a storied history including a combined 34 NCAA and NIT appearances. Utah State's been to 20 NCAA tournaments. Former members Utah and BYU have both won the NIT, and Utah's also got an NCAA title to their name.
These are not the resumes of a league full of failure. But for all that, since the formation of the Mountain West in 1999, the league had come up completely empty in the post-season... until last night, when a team whose post-season resume prior to joining the conference was devoid of championships. And they had to fight like hell to give the Em-Dubya their first post-season title.
After losing game one on the road, Nevada fought back to even the series Wednesday at home, setting up last night's decider. The Wolf Pack led by as much as 13 in the second half, but Morehead State chipped away, finally getting back to within one just after the 10-minute mark. It took another two minutes to actually tie, and yet one more before the Eagles could claim a lead; neither team would lead by more than two points again until 28 seconds remained, when Nevada's Cameron Oliver sank two free throws to put Nevada up by four.
It wasn't even close to over.
Five seconds later, Lamontray Harris drained a three to bring the Eagles back within one, and Tyron Criswell was sent to the line immediately after the inbound. He made the first, but missed the second, but Oliver blocked Harris's attempt at a layup with 14 seconds left. But DeJuan Marrero came down with the rebound and was fouled by Lindsey Drew as he drove for the basket. Marrero sank both free throws, and Oliver's attempt to win the game with two seconds left missed. And just like that, game three went to overtime.
The two teams jockeyed back and forth during the extra five; both teams held leads, and neither put a second possession between themselves and their opponent. With 16 seconds to go, Criswell deposited a layup to regain the lead for Nevada, and a defensive stop followed by the necessary foul put D.J. Fenner at the line for the Wolf Pack. He drained both, but that still only put Nevada up by three. With one second left, Xavier Moon lofted a three, but it hit the rim and bounced away harmlessly.
|COLLEGE BASKETBALL INVITATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP SERIES|
|GAME 3||Nevada 85, Morehead State 82 (OT)||Tyron Criswell (UNR), 21|
And with that, Nevada finally has a national banner to hang from the rafters of Lawlor Events Center -- a facility, it should be noted, which was sold out and experienced an eruption of celebration to rival that of any final four win. Mitch Holthus, calling the game for ESPNU, said during the frenzied overtime, "Somebody please tell me playing in the CBI does not matter." Nearly 10,000 fans fed a raucous and exciting atmosphere for a game which, in another reality, might have taken place at Bramlage Coliseum.
But playing in the CBI is beneath K-State or something, even when the fanbase really wanted post-season play this year. Not that anyone involved in making decisions cares or anything.
The amazing thing about Nevada's win is that on the floor, Morehead State was destroying them. Nevada won a three-point game in overtime in which they held a gobsmacking 39-6 advantage from the charity stripe. Part of that was a ridiculous 31-16 advantage in fouls, but Nevada shot 87% from the line while Morehead was terrible, shooting only 46%.
So now, the list of 2016 men's basketball champions is nearly complete. Indiana Wesleyan (33-5) in NAIA Division II (and they celebrated by announcing the school will begin playing football). Mid-America Christian (28-9), from Oklahoma City, in NAIA Division I. Saint Thomas (30-3) could have suffered the devastating blow of losing both the NCAA Division III football and basketball titles to undefeated opponents, but instead ended Benedictine (IL)'s season at 31-1 to claim the D-III crown. And in Division II, Augustana (SD) finished 34-2 in winning their first national title.
All that's left on the men's side of college basketball: the Final Four. And it starts tonight. But there's one other game before that one, and it's full of stories too.
We always make a point of focusing on the "other" games during this annual exercise, of course, but today marks a pretty special "other" occasion. The WNIT began life back in 1969 as the National Women's Invitational Tournament, the same year the first AIAW championships were held for women's basketball. In those early days, the competition was perhaps sketchy -- but then again, the entire structure of women's college athletics was sketchy.
Kansas State competed in the first two editions of the NWIT, losing in the first round to current NAIA school Wayland Baptist on both occasions. Wayland Baptist ruled the event for a decade; the Pioneers won the first nine tournaments. The first six of those aren't impressive. The field consisted of JUCOs and schools which don't even exist anymore and schools which are now in NCAA Division II; that was the state of women's sports at the time. But the final three titles of Wayland's run were captured by defeating UCLA in the final three years in a row as the tournament slowly transitioned toward legitimacy. By 1978, the first year without Wayland's participation, all but one team in the field was a Division I school.
In 1982, the women's basketball world changed, as the NCAA finally began sponsoring the sport. The AIAW collapsed, and the expanded NCAA tournament field hurt the NWIT a bit. As a result, in 1983 the NWIT was won by New Orleans7, beating Memphis State in the final of a tournament whose eight-team field once again only had one team representing a current Power 5 school. And this is where our story becomes relevant, although we'll digress just a moment more.
The NWIT folded in 1997 with no tournament taking place. In 1998, the WNIT began, and while they're two separate tournaments most people tend to view them as one event with a one-year gap, as they filled the exact same competitive space. In the final fourteen years of the NWIT, only twice -- Idaho over Northwestern State in 1986 and Arkansas State over SMU in 1993 -- did the tournament final feature two teams outside the current Power 5. The WNIT has been even more dominated by Power 5 schools; only the 2003 final didn't feature one, and even that one pitted Creighton against UNLV, two schools which aren't Power 5 but also aren't really "mid-majors".
This afternoon, not only will there be no Power 5 school in the WNIT final, the two schools fighting over the title were both in Division II the last time no Power 5 team showed up. South Dakota and Florida Gulf Coast made the move to Division I in the exact same year, 2007, and have quickly established themselves as serious mid-major forces in women's basketball. Their exclusion from the NCAA field this year was not entirely surprising, but was also not without controversy.
Today, one of them will win a national post-season title... which, to be fair, isn't something either of them would have had the chance to do if they hadn't been snubbed. After all, you'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who thinks any of the three teams not named "UConn" in the women's Final Four have a chance, either.
After that afternoon contest, which I really hope folks will give a chance, the action turns to Houston and the Big Dance. One suspects that the early game is the one most interesting to neutral observers, as everyone loves Buddy Hield (or, as I have noted before, they're probably terrible people who eat babies or something). After that, it's the ACC Championship Game featuring a cheating ferret and that guy who used to coach that school down the river. (No, we're not enthused about the nightcap.)
We'll have a more proper open thread for the Final Four tonight. Stay tuned.
|NCAA DIVISION I MEN'S BASKETBALL TOURNAMENT|
|NATL SF||5:09pm||(S2) Villanova||(W2) Oklahoma||Houston TX||TBS|
|NATL SF||7:39pm||(MW10) Syracuse||(E1) North Carolina|
|WOMEN'S NATIONAL INVITATION TOURNAMENT|
|CHAMPIONSHIP||2:00pm||Florida Gulf Coast||South Dakota||Vermillion SD||CBSSN|
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