Last Friday night I stood in front of Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia waiting to meet friends before entering the stadium to watch the first round of the NCAA Men's basketball tournament.
All of the sudden a throng of college-aged people dressed in Florida swim suits, pastel colors, and stupid-looking blue curly haired wigs started marching in my direction. They looked as if they had just been dropped off a plane after having gulped bourbon and Cokes the entire ride up from their Florida Gulf Coast campus in Fort Myers, Florida.
"Over-rated," they chanted. "Over-rated."
At first I wasn't sure who they were. Then it dawned on me: These must be the college student fans to cheer for the nobody team playing powerful Georgetown in the first round game. I knew Georgetown was on tap for the game but didn't even register who they were playing. Those kids and their team don't have a chance tonight, I thought, but isn't it nice they made the trip? It was cool to see kids making a trek from South Florida for their once in a lifetime--and probably last in a lifetime--opportunity to see their school play in its first NCAA basketball tournament.
They could check this one off their bucket lists as something they always wanted to do in their lives if they got the chance. Theirs was a nice little sideshow, quaint and innocent but, in the end, fleeting and futile and likely to be frustrating. They were going to get smashed. Their flight back to Florida would be somber, maybe even sober.
I entered the stadium and the game began. Nice little game to watch. No thoughts of any drama lept to mind.
But a few minutes into the contest this team was not only hanging with the Hoyas, they were outplaying them. Early in the second half they blasted to a 19 point lead and it didn't seem like a fluke. The 15th seeded Eagles looked more talented than the #2 seed and nationally ranked Hoyas. Surely, even with a 19 point lead this was a nice little story that was going to end because Georgetown was supposed to win. The favorites would make a comeback.
But the point guard, Brent Comer, a good ball handler and slick passer, dazzled and dominated. I haven't seen a better one in this tourney or anytime this season. A backdoor cut here, a well-timed and sharply angled bounce pass here, and it was beautiful basketball. In the second half all hell broke loose when Comer dribbled down the right side and lofted the ball high to the left side. Chase Fieler flew toward the basket, caught the ball in his right hand, rose a foot above the rim, then slammed the ball down through the bucket. I lept out of my seat and dove to grab a railing nearby. I had to hold on to something I got so excited. The stadium exploded. I don't recall ever leaping so far and spontaneously as I did after that volcanic eruption of a dunk.
The crowd--almost all cheering for the Eagles--knew then that these guys no one knew were going to win that game to advance to the nexgt round. This had to be the best #15 seed the tourney has ever seen. Down the stretch Georgetown kept fouling them and they kept making free throws, especially Sherwood Brown, who converted nine of 12 and finished with a team-high 24 points. I don't remember a team making so many clutch free throws under such immense pressure. Their coach, Andy Enfield, shot 92 percent during his playing career at Johns Hopkins University. He has taught them all how to do it and has obviously taught well. As for the big men, Fieler and Eddie Murray can sky and do so fearlessly. They go at the rim with ferocity and fearlessness; clearly they don't care how high the team their playing is ranked or how many All American big men they have. They just attack the rack the way you would teach in at basketball camp.
As the final minute ticked off, it was special to see all the players urging their cluster of fans to make more noise as they hugged each other on the court. They knew they had it. They knew they were living a boyhood dream, knocking off the big shots on the biggest basketball stage of their lives. After the buzzer sounded culminating the improbable 78-68 stunning victory, they danced with each other on the court. They didn't want to leave. The crowd didn't want them to leave. The moment was too great, the feeling too blissful. They wanted to bask in their glory and the whole stadium wanted them to continue doing so. This wasn't arrogance or audacity; this was a team from nowhere unleashing the purest form of basketball joy there is.
Sitting there watching, the thought occurred to me that this is what makes March Madness great--it never fails to deliver delightful drama. The surprises, the shocks, the amazing things that happen such as this team beating Georgetown. I heard the chances of them winning, according to odds makers, hovered somewhere around 3 percent. This tournament is about those 3 percenters. In March Madness, long shots come through. We experience the wonderful thoughts of what could happen if all things lined up on one night in one place for one team. We equate these achievements to our own lives and how we may one day reach the mountaintop.
Eventually the team had to leave the court because another game had to be played. Had there not been a second game, I can see them still out there celebrating. Why leave paradise--ever? As the players left the court, they walked down a tunnel and slapped hands with total strangers who had fallen in love with them in two short hours of basketball. It hadn't taken long. The way they played with such poise and skill was something to behold. They showed a world who cared and knew nothing about them that they should care and know something about them.
In the second round game last night they duplicated the same magical basketball play against San Diego State. Sticking shots from outside, passing the ball to the open man, going strong to the bucket, dunking like circus performers, they whipped this opponent the same way they did Georgetown. They were simply better and won easily, 81-71. Comer dished out 14 assists. This wasn't a joke or a bad night for the other team. None of that. They were just superior basketball players, as improbable as that may seem.
After the game you may have seen what happened in their locker room. You won't see a more excited celebration by the team that eventually wins the national title two weeks from tonight. Showering their coach with water, they formed a circle, jumped up and down, and screamed. The coach's suit was soaked but no one cared. In my mind, these Eagles have flown the highest of all March Madness participants. They are my national champions.