COLUMBUS, Ohio — Could this really happen? Colgate coach Matt Langel was asked if he ever thought that the small school from upstate New York actually would finish off a win over one of the best teams in the country. “Yeah,” he said afterward. “The whole time.”
Fact is, both sides believed it was possible, which made the first-round game against second-seeded Tennessee so stirring. Naturally, all the fans except those wearing Tennessee orange were rooting for Cinderella, right until the final minute, when the overwhelming favorite nailed down a 77-70 victory over the 15th-seeded Raiders.
It had been a heck of a show, what with Colgate recovering from a 16-point deficit, leading in the second half and hanging in there until Admiral Schofield’s second consecutive three-pointer with 45 seconds left gave the Volunteers (30-5) a nine-point lead.
“I think a game like today is what makes the NCAA Tournament the NCAA Tournament,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said.
Anxiety is part of March Madness and Tennessee admitted experiencing it. “I want to say that was a really good team. They fought super hard,” said Jordan Bone, the point guard who often fed Schofield (19 points) and scored 16 of his own. “We just appreciate those guys coming to fight. Just shaking their hands, I was like, `Great game, man, keep your head up. Way to fight. Way to fight.’ Just a wonderful lesson, just to compete day in, day out. That’s what this game is all about.”
The record won’t show that Colgate (24-11) put up such a struggle mostly without its central figure. Big man Rapolas Ianauskas, a transfer from Northwestern who was the Patriot League’s Player of the Year, played sparingly and did not score because he simply could not see. Langel said that the junior has been suffering from pinkeye and it flared Friday morning.
What the Raiders did have was a lot of heart, much of it from sophomore guard Jordan Burns, who scored a game-high 32 points, sinking 8 of 13 three-pointers.
“We came into this game knowing how good we were as a team,” Burns said. “And to be able to go out there and show people how good we really are was great . . . It was great going out there, with this big crowd and being able to stay in the game and almost winning,” Burns said. “It was amazing.”
It had the chance to be amazingly memorable. The crowd roared when Tucker Richardson’s three-pointer with 11:35 left put Colgate ahead 52-50. Loud cheers went up when Burns drove and scored to bring the Raiders within 67-64 with 1:36 remaining.
Ultimately, Tennessee advanced and will face Iowa here Sunday in an effort to keep its Final Four hope alive. Colgate’s players had the honor of going back to Hamilton, N.Y. knowing they played the game of their lives when it mattered most.
“Personally, I love playing basketball. I’m always happy when I’m playing,” said forward Will Rayman of Manhattan, who grew up on New York’s asphalt courts. “This is `it.’ This is what you dream about as a kid. This is what you watch on TV. This is the best stage to do it on, and we were just all having a really good time out there.”