College Sports

March Madness: Best games, top plays, biggest upsets, standout performers of first round

Murray State’s Ja Morant, left, dunks over Marquette’s Joey Hauser (22) during the second half of a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn.
Murray State’s Ja Morant, left, dunks over Marquette’s Joey Hauser (22) during the second half of a first round men’s college basketball game in the NCAA Tournament, Thursday, March 21, 2019, in Hartford, Conn. AP

There were plenty of shining moments in the first two days of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Tournament.

Now that the first round is in the books, we take a look at the stars, top teams, best conference performances and more.

Let’s begin:

Top performers:

Ja Morant

It’s impossible to start anywhere else. The All-American point guard for the Murray State Racers notched the first NCAA Tournament triple-double since Draymond Green put one up for the Michigan State Spartans in 2012.

Despite his All-American status, Morant entered March Madness as something of an unknown to most of the nation because he plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. He quickly made sure everyone knew the hype was real by putting up 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds for No. 12-seed Murray State in an 83-64 upset of the No. 5-seed Marquette Golden Eagles on Thursday. More on Morant in a bit.

Jordan Burns

He won’t get a chance to produce more memorable tournament games this year. His Colgate Raiders fell to the Tennessee Volunteers, a pre-Tournament favorite to make the Final Four. But Colgate hung around and that was due to Burns’ immense game.

He dropped 32 points, making 12 of 20 shots and was incredible from beyond the arc. Burns converted 8 of 13 shots from 3-point range, including some deep bombs.

Take a look:

Not bad for a player that was told by a football coach that he was too small to play Division I basketball, according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Best games

Auburn-New Mexico State

The New Mexico State Aggies nearly put together one of the more memorable Tournament upsets in recent memory. Down by seven with 1:50 to go, No. 12-seed New Mexico State had a wide-open layup to tie the game in the final seconds, but guard AJ Harris passed it up to find a three-point shooter on the right wing. Terrell Brown missed the shot, but got fouled and went to the line for three free throws.

The guard made only one of the three, but the No. 5-seed Auburn Tigers flubbed the rebound and the Aggies got an inbound play with a chance to or win. Guard Trevelin Queen got a wide-open three from the left corner only he missed the rim altogether. Auburn survived for a 78-77 win in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Maryland-Belmont

The No. 6-seed Maryland Terrapins dug out of an early hole and withstood 35 points from Senior All-American wing Dyland Windler to pull out a 79-77 win against the No. 11-seed Belmont Bruins.

Maryland had to win ugly as it went 6 of 22 from three-point range, but star freshman power forward Jalen Smith had the best game of his career with 19 points, 12 rebounds and one monster slam dunk. The Terrapins were able to pull out the win when sophomore guard Darryl Morsell read Belmont’s final play and intercepted a backdoor cut intended for Windler with the Bruins down 78-77.

Best plays

Morant Madness

Morant’s on-court performance was even more impressive than the box score suggests because of the sheer volume of highlight plays he created. About half his assists were highlight-worthy, including a slick one-handed whip to beat a double-team from the top of the key. He hit multiple impressive three-pointers, including a clutch stepback to beat the buzzer in the first half.

The sophomore is best known for his dunks, though, and he provided one of those, too. The guard put an exclamation point on the Racers’ win by basically jumping over a Marquette defender off a perfectly timed cut.

ZionMania

Zion Williamson did exactly what you would have expected him to do against a No. 16 seed. The All-American power forward didn’t need to take over, so he picked his spots and put together a few of his typically impressive highlights as the No. 1-seed Duke Blue Devils cruised to a 85-62 win against the North Dakota State Bison.

Two plays stood out most from Williamson’s 25-point game. The first was a literally rim-rattling dunk. The other was an impressive behind-the-back move in transition to finish a layup at the rim.

Biggest upsets

UC Irvine over Kansas State

The Anteaters provided the biggest upset of the first round as a No. 13 seed knocking off No. 4-seed Kansas State. The Wildcats made the Elite Eight last year and were Big 12 regular season co-conference champions with Texas Tech. UC Irvine had other plans with timely 3-point shooting down the stretch to pull off the upset and instantly become this year’s Cinderella darling of the tournament.

Liberty over Mississippi State

The No. 13-seed Liberty Flames trailed by 10 points with less than eight minutes to go when Caleb Homesley took over. The guard scored 14 of Liberty’s next 16 points to push the Flames ahead of the No. 4-seed Mississippi State Bulldogs and Liberty hung on for a 80-76 win.

Homesley finished with a career-high 30 points in the win. The Flames’ victory was one of three for the No. 12 seeds, but this was the first in Liberty’s program history.

Best conferences:

Big Ten

No conference got more teams into the field of 68 than the Big Ten Conference and now no conference has more teams in the Round of 32.

The Big Ten posted a 7-1 conference as a collective with the No. 5-seed Wisconsin Badgers the only loser. The No. 10-seed Minnesota Golden Gophers sprung a first-round upset with an 86-76 win against the No. 7-seed Louisville Cardinals and the rest of the league’s favored teams took care of business.

ACC

The Atlantic Coast Conference is the favorite to produce the national champion with three No. 1 seeds, but two of those withstood scares Friday. The Virginia Cavaliers and North Carolina Tar Heels both trailed at halftime before pulling away for lopsided wins against No. 16 seeds.

For the most part, the ACC took care of business and moved five teams into the weekend. The only losers were the No. 7-seed Louisville Cardinals and the No. 8-seed Syracuse Orange, neither of whom were serious threats to reach the second weekend, anyway.

Best second-round games:

Florida State-Murray State

This one should be entertaining, and it already has multiple storylines attached. Florida State came close to a Final Four trip last year, and the leading scorer of that team was Phil Cofer. Injuries have hobbled Cofer this season and he didn’t play in the first-round victory over Vermont. Then after the big win, Cofer received a phone call that his father, Mike, passed away after a long battle with an undisclosed illness.

And finally, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton compared Morant to NBA legend Magic Johnson in a press conference ahead of the game. The Morant Show continues against the No. 5-seed Seminoles, and it’s a matchup that should be worth watching.

Purdue-Villanova

The defending national champion Villanova Wildcats, now a No. 6 seed, will be vulnerable against the No. 3-seed Purdue Boilermakers. As the Big Ten’s performance has proved, Purdue is more battle-tested than Villanova and will have the best player on the floor with All-American point guard Carsen Edwards.

The junior scored 26 points in the Boilermakers’ 61-48 win against the No. 14-seed Old Dominion Monarchs, but it took him 23 shots. If he isn’t more efficient, Villanova might be able to get back to the Sweet 16 as an underdog.

Odds and ends:

This year’s opening round of the NCAA tournament didn’t really produce a lot of madness. There were some close games and a couple upsets, but it’s been a pretty tame tournament so far.

Williamson, Morant and RJ Barrett clearly are the top three picks in this year’s NBA draft, and none of them disappointed in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Will they continue impressing over the weekend, or will new stars emerge? It all unfolds Saturday and Sunday as the field pushes toward theSweet 16.

Sports reporter Jason has covered high school, college and pro sports since joining the Bradenton Herald in 2010. He’s won Florida Press Club awards for sports feature and column writing. He currently writes college and pro sports stories for the McClatchy East Region real-time team.


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