Philadelphia played host to six NCAA Tournament games on March 17 and 19, featuring eight teams from eight different states. Fans who attended the event will only be talking about one of them in years to come, and Villanova was not involved.The first day kicked off in a Northwest vs. Southwest battle with the confident Wisconsin Badgers against the Wildcats of Arizona.
Arizona had a sentimental edge with point guard Mustafa Shakur playing in his hometown, and he did not disappoint with 17 points and nine assists.
Villanova fans watched excitedly as the game would determine their second round victim, but looks of confidence changed to worry as the other Wildcats made it rain shooting .826 from the field en route to an impressive 94-75 victory.
Walking around the Wachovia center were wide-eyed Monmouth fans just happy to be there and hoping against hope for an upset against top-seeded Villanova, who expectedly sent them packing with an ugly 58-45 victory. The blue and light blue colors of Villanova were well represented in the crowd and made sure everyone knew whose house it was.
After the Nova win, fans exited the Wachovia Center for the break between the first and second session. Calls of “Who needs tickets?” could be heard as fans attempted to scalp their tickets for the later games, feeling satisfied that their team was done. Who wants to see Albany play Connecticut anyway?
Those that did return received a gem of a game from the Great Danes of Albany, a 16th seed that received about as much attention from experts as a goldfish at Sea World. Donning purple and gold, the cagey Danes gave the Huskies of UConn a dogfight for 30 minutes. They led by 12 in the second half and the entire building was behind them from start to finish.
“I thought I was witnessing history,” said fan Ricky Ramos. “If they pulled off that upset I would be wearing an Albany t-shirt right now!”
Unlike Monmouth, who played a cagey stalling game to hang with Villanova, Albany employed a swarming man-to-man defense and an up-tempo offense going blow for blow with the tournament favorite. Philly fans, sensing their favorite Rocky vs. Apollo scenario, showed Brotherly Love to the underdog Great Danes, jumping to their feet as if every basket was a little miracle.
“They shocked us into such a state that they put us in a situation where I witnessed our poorest offensive effort in 20 years at UConn,” Huskies coach Jim Calhoun told ESPN.
A 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed in NCAA history, and UConn was not about to be a footnote in the record books. Led by the steady play of Marcus Williams and Denham Brown, the Huskies regained their composure midway through the second half. Williams scored 21 points and quieted the Wachovia center. Jamar Wilson led Albany with 19 points.
The saddest part about the 72-59 UConn victory was that the score did not do justice to the superhuman effort put forth by the Danes.
After the game, Calhoun walked over and hugged Albany head coach Will Brown and told him his team was something special.
“For us to play UConn and be up 12 points, and three years ago we wouldn’t be in the same building, that’s an amazing accomplishment,” Wilson said.
Rounding out the first day was UAB vs. Kentucky. Despite being the closest contest of the day, the majority of the crowd had left before the end of the first half allowing fans in the upper levels a chance to move closer to the action. Kentucky won 69-64 behind Bobby Perry’s career high 25 points.
On Sunday, Villanova bested Arizona 82-78 and UConn got by Kentucky 87-82. While both games were spectacles themselves, and to some extent better basketball games, they pale in comparison to the Albany game. Albany had the best team in the country on the ropes, but they needed more than just the luck of St. Patrick and a lot of heart to beat them.