After a highly uneventful opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament, this past weekend of Sweet 16 and Elite Eight play undoubtedly delivered. After an opening round that went almost entirely chalk, it made for an exciting second weekend with a number of the top seeds squaring off against each other.
Among Thursday and Friday’s Sweet 16 games, Purdue’s showdown with Tennessee, Duke’s narrow victory over Virginia Tech and Auburn’s dismantling of North Carolina were the most exciting games. On Thursday night, Purdue got out to a massive early lead against Tennessee. They led the No. 2 Volunteers by 12 at the half and extended their lead to as many as 18 in the second half. Tennessee, however, would not go down without a fight, as their stars Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield led the Vols all the way back from down 18 to take a two-point lead in the game’s final seconds. But with about five seconds remaining, Purdue inbounded the ball to its star Carsen Edwards who was fouled on a 3-point attempt. Edwards converted two of the three free throws and sent the game to overtime, where Purdue won easily after Williams fouled out for the Vols.
In perhaps the most shocking result of the Sweet 16, the Auburn Tigers tore apart Roy Williams’ No. 1 UNC Tar Heels. The Tigers rode the strategy they have all season, playing with tremendous pace, gunning and knocking down shots from the perimeter and playing suffocating, opportunistic defense. The Tar Heels had no answer for Auburn defensively in the second half and were unable to keep up with their phenomenal three-point shooting (17-37 as a team). The bad news for Auburn, however, was they lost one of their star players in forward Chuma Okeke who tore his ACL late in the game. They had to play without him in their Elite Eight win over SEC-rival Kentucky and will again be without in their Final Four matchup with Virginia.
Speaking of Virginia, the Cavaliers’ Elite Eight matchup with Purdue was perhaps the game of the tournament so far. Both teams were unconscious offensively, especially in the second half. Purdue was led all night by Edwards, who had his second 42-point game of the tournament, and UVA was led by Kyle Guy who had been slumping all tournament. Edwards was phenomenal the entire game, scoring 42 of Purdue’s 75 points, and Virginia’s famous defense simply had no answer for his shooting. Every trip down the court it seemed Edwards was pulling up from farther and farther from the basket and still making everything. Every time it appeared UVA was going to pull away, Edwards would drill one of his 10 3-pointers of the night to keep Purdue in it. With five seconds remaining, UVA’s Ty Jerome was at the line trailing by three, when he made the first free throw but missed the second, Virginia was able to tip the ball back out toward mid-court, where Virginia guard Kihei Clark grabbed the loose ball, took two dribbles and threw a half-court pass to Mamadi Diakite, who hit a miraculous floater as time expired to force overtime, where Virginia pulled away for an 80-75 victory.
The final memorable game of the weekend was Michigan State’s shocking victory over No. 1 overall seed Duke. This was a game of big runs, especially in the first half. Michigan State jumped out to a big first half lead, but Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett went on a run to regain the lead before allowing the Spartans to close the half out on 13-0 run while Williamson battled foul trouble to head into halftime up 34-30. The second half was a non-stop back-and-forth between the two teams. Every time Duke would go on a small run, the Spartans and Cassius Winston would have an answer, and vice versa. The story of the game in the second half, however, was the turnovers. Michigan State turned the ball over just seven times to Duke’s 17, and Duke did not score a single fast break point, which was a key for them all season. Trailing by one, Michigan State ran a perfect out of bounds play out of a timeout that resulted in what became the game-winning 3-pointer. Duke attempted to tie the game, but Barrett’s free throw woes that troubled him all season were what cost them as he missed the first of two shots at the line that could have tied the game, and Duke fell by one, 68-67.
This past weekend of the tournament was as memorable as any in years, and even with a number of the top teams gone, the Final Four should be very interesting, with Virginia facing a red-hot Auburn team and Michigan State facing Texas Tech’s vicious defense.