LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There was no argument to an Iowa State player's claim that the University of Alabama-Birmingham "wanted it more.'' What the unlikely winning team left open to discussion was what "it'' was.
UAB players sure seemed to want the ball more as it came off the rim. They also wanted to give their school and their city a lift after the administration's unpopular decision to give up football. Mostly, they wanted what they got, a thrilling 60-59 victory that officially began the Madness this March -- a No. 14 seed over a No. 3.
"It was an amazing feeling,'' said William Lee, who was exuberant after hitting a jump shot with 24 seconds left to give UAB a 58-57 lead, blocking a shot by Iowa State star Georges Niang with 17 seconds remaining and sinking two free throws with 12.1 left to put his team up by three.
Lee and his teammates whooped it up on the floor and shouted at the tops of their lungs in the locker room after Naz Long (2-for-9 from long range) missed a potential tying three-pointer with four seconds left.
"I'm an emotional player. I'm really emotional on and off the court,'' Lee said. "Coming into this game, we were the underdog. Coach told us to play with an edge, be the most physical, hardest-playing team out there today. And that's what we did.''
To say that the Blazers (20-15) played with a football mentality would be rubbing salt in an open wound. The Alabama-Birmingham community was extremely upset about the school's decision to discontinue the sport, given that in terms of importance, football in this state ranks only slightly behind oxygen.
Instead of rallying around the basketball squad, many would-be fans took it out on coach Jerod Haase's team, declining to show up. In a sense, the Blazers were underdogs all season.
"I guess we like being underdogs,'' said Lee, who had 14 points and 12 rebounds that contributed heavily to UAB's pivotal 52-37 advantage on the boards. Whenever UAB started to lag, it got a big basket from Robert Brown, who had 21 points.
The afternoon game, the first of four on Thursday at the Yum! Center, was an absolute stunner for Iowa State (25-9). The Cyclones had won the conference tournament of the Big 12, widely considered the best league in the country. Plus, they had shown resilience, winning five in a row after trailing by double digits each time. Iowa State had legitimate visions of a Final Four run.
"It was as tough a loss as I've ever been a part of,'' coach Fred Hoiberg said.
A 12-2 start was no help, what with sloppy ballhandling that allowed UAB to get back in the game. Nor could the Cyclones pull away after they went up by four with 3:13 left.
"I just felt like UAB wanted it more, and we just didn't come out ready to play,'' said Monte Morris (15 points).
Ultimately, it was one foot forward in the NCAA for the Blazers, either a green sneaker or a gray one. Each player wears one of each as an awareness-raiser for pediatric cancer research. "It feels good that we're doing something that's for more than ourselves,'' Lee said.
They expected Thursday's game to resonate beyond the court. "Birmingham has been through a lot, especially UAB and our community,'' Brown said. "We just want to give them something exciting, something to hold on to and believe in.''
They got what they wanted.