There was Southern, the sixteenth-seeded SWAC champion, giving once Cinderella now Goliath Gonzaga all it could handle in the second-round of the NCAA Tournament.
These Jaguars, the same outfit that won just four times two years ago, were threatening to upset the No. 1 ranked team in the country.
Before the teams squared off Thursday, the only real discussion about the contest came in the form of could the Zags be only the second mid-major in the last five years to reach the Final Four as a top seed. A win over Southern seemed so much a formality that The Advocate — a daily newspaper in Southern’s Baton Rouge backyard — didn’t even send a reporter out to Salt Lake City, Utah to cover the game.
But with 3:46 remaining in regulation, SU’s Derick Beltran, a junior college transfer and the team’s leading scorer, hit a jumper to tie the score at 56.
I bet the sports editor was sweating bullets that a local was missing what was unfolding inside Energy Solutions Arena.
Some 37 minutes of game-time earlier, Southern proved it would not be intimidated. After falling behind 7-0, the Jaguars went on an 8-0 run to take a surprising lead. In fact, Southern led three times in the first half alone before trailing 34-31 at intermission.
Southern had established they were going to be the aggressor just like they did 20 years ago, when a spunky group of unknowns knocked off Final Four favorite Georgia Tech in the first-round.
While Gonzaga worked meticulously in the half court create open looks, Southern threw three-point haymakers, and counterpunched with an interior defensive presence that stonewalled Gonzaga’s bigs to the tune of eight blocked shots.
Center Kelly Olynyk, who scored 21 points and collected 10 rebounds to halt the upset bid, spent nearly as much time readjusting his long dark brown locks after shot attempts underneath the rim than he did on the scorers sheet in the first stanza.
“Coming into the game we thought we were going to make history,” senior guard Jameel Grace told the Associated Press. “No one comes into a game expecting to lose. We always expected to come in the game and win the game.”
A Gary Bell 3-pointer gave Gonzaga a 59-56 lead with 3:19 left. Kevin Pangos bolted in another triple to give the Zags a 62-68 advantage in the final minute.
Gonzaga might have won 64-58, but they were mentally and physically battered and bewildered during the 40-minute contest trying to fend off the game Jaguars.
Learning after the game that Jaguar players were nearly inconsolable following the dogged game, was a microcosm of the emotions expressed by millions who have historically black college ties.
That kinship is borne out of decades of oppression, abandonment and level of pseudo racial disrespect that even the underdogs or all underdogs in the field of 68 can’t relate to. Beating Gonzaga would have meant than just advancing to the second round.
It would have meant more than leading SportsCenter or being another highlight that could be added to the “One Shining Moment” video package following the national championship game in a few weeks.
It would have been another plateau reached in the never-ending journey for true acceptance that so readily continues to be denied. It’s a struggle those who share the same hue as young men in the blue and gold uniforms do outside of the sports arena. It is why we collectively rally around and for them, regardless of university affiliation.
“They don’t give you a lot of easy opportunities, and they’re very patient on offense,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “When they start shooting the ball like they did at multiple spots that they haven’t necessarily shown all year, then the crowd gets going and everyone wants to see that first 1-16 loss.”
Southern head coach Roman Banks and his Jaguars wanted to see more than just that.