UAB and UCLA pulled off upsets in a wild afternoon of NCAA tournament play in Louisville.
LOUISVILLE, Ky.—At the end of Thursday’s game between No. 6 seed SMU and No. 11 seed UCLA, Mustangs forward Markus Kennedy lay prone on the court, despondent. The heartbreak came after a stunning ending that included a controversial goaltending call on a shot by UCLA’s Bryce Alford that gave the Bruins a 60-59 lead and consecutive missed jumpers by SMU's Nic Moore in the final seconds, sealing the Mustangs' exit from the NCAA tournament.
“It's hard,” senior guard Ryan Manuel said afterward. “We fought back to give ourselves a chance to win. To have the feeling of putting the jersey on for the last time, it hurts.”
Hours earlier, a far more improbable upset occurred when No. 14 seed UAB held one of the nation’s top offensive teams, No. 3 seed Iowa State, to 19 points below its season average in a 60-59 win. On an afternoon that didn't take long to remind the entire country why the NCAA tournament is so beloved, the epicenter of the Madness was in Louisville, where the first two games of the day ended in upsets.
UAB served notice that it was, unquestionably, for real midway through the second half of its matchup with the Big 12 champion Cyclones. Blazers senior guard C.J. Washington caught the ball near the elbow, squared up and released a jump shot. Calling for the ball near the right block, Chris Cokley turned and watched the ball bounce off the front of the rim and carom off the backboard. The freshman forward sealed off Iowa State’s top rim protector, Jameel McKay, and, in one fluid motion, rose to flush the ball through the basket with his right hand.
Recalling the sequence after the game, Cokley said he was “just jacked up, I was ready to go. I was even more pumped than at the start of the game.” The jam was not out of character for Cokley. Multiple teammates attested to his athleticism, and associate head coach Robert Ehsan, said that, “In the summer, he would do one NBA move every practice. He’d do something where you’d be like, ‘Holy smokes.’”
The difference? Cokley wasn’t dunking in front of only teammates and coaches on Thursday. He was delivering the signature play of perhaps the most surprising upset on the first day of second-round action in the NCAA tournament, a win that feels more significant in light of recent events involving UAB’s athletic program.
In December, UAB, citing financial concerns, announced that it was shuttering its football program (along with its bowling and rifle teams). The move, which came on the heels of the football team's first .500-or-better season since 2001, left students and players in tears, sparked protests across campus and prompted discussion over whether other schools would follow suit.
UAB sophomore guard Hakeem Baxter remembered talking before the game to football players who told him, “Go out there and win it for us, man. We’re going to be rooting y’all on.” Said junior guard Robert Brown after the game, “Birmingham right now has been through a lot, especially UAB and our community. We just want to give them something exciting, something to cheer for, and do something to hold on to and believe in.”
Entering this tournament the basketball team didn’t seem capable of drowning out the negativity. The Blazers lost to every major-conference program they faced in November and December, and finished in fifth place in Conference USA, a league ranked 17th in the country by kenpom.com. Even their three-game run through the conference tournament did little to make people think they could knock off Iowa State.
Over the first five minutes against the Cyclones, UAB fared pretty much as expected. The Blazers looked like an over-its-head mid-major on the verge of being blown out in the opening round.
Iowa State used a mix of crisp ball movement and penetration to jump out to a 10-point lead. Around the 16-minute mark, Georges Niang drilled a three that made the Cyclones fans inside the KFC Yum Center roar. A few minutes later, he converted a mid-range jump shot to put his team up five. It seemed Iowa State would continue strafing the Blazers with its high-octane offense. Then UAB started getting stops.
With the Blazers walling off driving lanes, contesting shots and deflecting passes—and Iowa State missing its share of good looks—the Cyclones’ lead completely evaporated in less than five minutes. UAB went into the half with a three-point lead. Of course, this was not unfamiliar territory for Iowa State. The Cyclones overcame double-digit deficits in all three of their wins last week in the Big 12 tournament.
Only this time, the opposing defense held firm. All told, Iowa State’s offense was limited to 0.87 points per possession, it’s lowest mark since the start of conference play. It didn’t help the Cyclones that they struggled mightily to compete with the Blazers on the offensive and defensive glass. UAB grabbed 40.4 percent of its misses and 78.6 percent of Iowa State’s, compared to 21.4 and 59.6, respectively, for the Cyclones.
The final two minutes belonged to the Blazers' William Lee. The freshman forward converted a layup around the 1:30 mark to narrow Iowa State's lead to two, dropped in a jump shot with under 30 seconds remaining to give his team a one-point lead, rejected Niang in a key sequence and drilled two free throws with under 20 seconds remaining to push UAB's lead to three.
Afterward, as Blazers fans shouted in celebration, players ran on the court to savor their victory. “This win feels great. The fans out there, they were kinda looking forward to us winning, and with the football team gone, the football players have our back 100 percent, too,” Cokley said. “So that way we can kinda show them, ‘We're winning this for y’all, and for Birmingham.’”
UCLA, meanwhile, had its own motivation upon arriving in Louisville. The Bruins' inclusion in the NCAA tournament generated a fair amount of controversy, with numerous observers questioning how the 20-13 team earned a bid to the field of 68. Now, they're on to the Round of 32 and could stick around for awhile, though they needed the help of a controversial call to beat SMU.
With UCLA trailing by two and under 20 seconds remaining, guard Bryce Alford launched a fadeaway three-point shot. The shot missed its target, but SMU center Yanick Moreira made contact with the ball. The play was ruled goaltend, giving the Bruins a one-point lead.
The Mustangs had two shots in the waning seconds, but guard Nic Moore missed a three-point jump shot and a two-point jump shot before the clock expired.
The referees could not review whether Alford's shot was a goaltend, but the USBWA pool reporter said officials went to check whether the shot was from inside the arc or beyond it. Below is one view of the shot.
Rules stipulate that the following conditions must be met on a field-goal attempt for a goaltending to take place: 1) The ball has begun its downward flight; 2) The entire ball is “above the level of the ring and has the possibility, while in flight, of entering the basket and is not touching the cylinder.”
John Adams, the NCAA national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, spoke with CBS about the play after the game.
“[The ball] got touched by the defender before it could get to the rim,” Adams said. “I think most people that have seen the replays would agree with that. And I think once it gets to the rim, it has a chance to go in. So it was prevented from cleanly getting to the rim. The official—what we call our trail official—looked at the play in real time and called it goaltending.”
Moreira spoke about the play after the game as he fought back tears.
“I thought I had the ball in my hands,” Moreira said. “It's all my fault. I should have let the ball hit the rim. I take the blame on myself. I shouldn't have made that mistake. As a senior, you can't make those mistakes at the end of the game.”
The controversial play marked the culmination of a wild game that saw UCLA fritter away a 10-point lead and fall behind by nine with less than five minutes remaining. Alford finished with a game-high 27 points on 9-of-11 three-point shooting, including the game winner.
The Bruins' “upset” over SMU does not validate the committee’s decision to include them in the field. The committee is tasked with slotting and seeding the field based on what teams have accomplished—not how they think teams will perform.
There could have been no predicting how either UAB or UCLA would fare this week. Now, at least one of them will be playing next week.