LOUISVILLE, Ky. — This is what the NCAA tournament is supposed to look and sound like, and it didn’t take long.
UAB 60, Iowa State 59 — before Thursday’s round was barely two hours old. Who saw that coming? And if so, how?
One team a No. 3 seed, Big 12 tournament champion, and trendy pick for a deep run.
The other a No. 14 seed and 15-time loser. But this is March.
You could tell that in the happy words from the hero of the hour, Robert Brown with his 21 points. “Once you step inside the court, it’s anyone’s game.’’
You could also tell from the shattered Cyclones locker room, as Georges Niang spoke for so many upset victims past, present and future, “This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.’’
No, it wasn’t. For lots of reasons.
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• UAB had not won a game away from Birmingham since Jan 31.
“That’s not something we chose to focus on,” coach Jerod Haase said afterward.
• The Blazers began the season as the third youngest team in college basketball, with only seven combined years of Division I experience on the entire roster.
“I’d be willing to bet — and I’m pretty sure about this. Four or five guys on our team a month ago didn’t realize that the Conference USA tournament champions got an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament,” Haase said. “I’d bet a third of our team had never watched the selection show.”
• One website had established the Blazers’ chances for losing to Big 12 tournament champion Iowa State at 89 percent. We know this because virtually every UAB player mentioned that figure in the locker room afterward.
“We took that to the heart,” said William Lee, the forward who hit a jumper, made two free throws and helped block a shot in the last 24 seconds. “Kind of a little disrespect, if you ask me.”
• And finally, five minutes into the game at the first TV timeout, Iowa State led 12-2, and everything looked on script. But Haase played for Roy Williams at Kansas and was an assistant for many years for Williams at Kansas and North Carolina, so he has seen the inside of a good many NCAA tournaments. He understands the sudden ebbs and flows, and warned his players about them beforehand.
“It was not a panic mode because we set it up before the game that if that happened, it wasn’t going to be a panic situation,” he said. “Any of the timeouts, that was by far the most calm I was. I said we’re fine.”
Better than fine, it turned out. This NCAA tournament had gone mad before the afternoon was out. No. 3 seeds had become an endangered species. Baylor gone against Georgia State, Notre Dame fortunate to escape Northeastern.
And here. “You saw UAB’s bench rush the court as if they won the national championship,’’ Iowa State’s Naz Long said. But that is what makes the month magic. The Cyclones didn’t survive UAB’s 52-37 dominance in rebounding, or the defense that limited them to 33 percent shooting in the second half, or the fearlessness of Blazers such as Lee — who boldly took and buried a jumper with 24 seconds left to put UAB ahead to stay 58-57.
No hesitation on that shot? “None at all,” he said.
How did this happen? Start in Spain, of all places. The UAB team was filled with new players who barely knew one another when it traveled there for an off-season tour of basketball and bonding. “I vividly remember early on in that trip we sat down for a team meal and I don’t think there was one thing said. They all kind of looked at each other,” Haase said. “By the end of that trip, it was like a flock of geese. Anywhere one went, everybody else went.”
Next, was the goal Haase set for his team just before the season.
“Coach told us we’ve got to be known for something,” Lee said. “We decided to be known for defense.”
Later came the dash through the Conference USA tournament to earn the bid.
“His message was winning the conference championship is fun,” Lee said of Haase. “And this is going to be funner.”
Add in the motivation to brighten an chaotic athletic year for UAB, after the tumult over the football program being axed last December.
“We want to give UAB something to believe in,” Lee said. “I guess since we made it this far, why not keep going and make them believe in something?”
And finally there was Thursday, when the Blazers arrived here thinking not at all like the underdogs they were.
“We have not talked about upsets or to make one shining moment,” Haase said. “We came here to win the game. … Our thought has been when we play well, we can compete with anybody. That has been expressed to our team and our team has made the choice to believe that. I think that’s what you saw today.”
The plan was to hit the boards hard. “Coach told us they don’t like to block out,” Denzell Watts said of the Cyclones. Hard? UAB grabbed 19 offensive rebounds. “It was like a war under there,” Iowa State’s Jameel McKay said.
So the Blazers hit the big shots when they had to, refused to blink when behind, didn’t back down physically and wore green. Know who they looked a lot like with all that?
George Mason, 2006.
The first 2015 giant-killer had quickly stepped forward. March was here.