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  • It was a year short on Cinderellas, but that doesn’t mean lower seeds never got their moments in the limelight.
By Joe Wilkinson
April 03, 2019

The 2019 NCAA tournament made up for its lack of early upsets with breathtaking second-weekend drama. This year there was no UMBC, Florida Gulf Coast or Norfolk State to catch the nation by surprise in the first round, nor was there a Loyola-Chicago that captured fans’ hearts with a deep run. The lowest-seeded team to win a game in the round of 64 was No. 13 seed UC Irvine, which promptly lost to 12th-seeded Oregon, the only double-digit seed to make the Sweet 16.

In return, all four Elite Eight games were instant classics, and multiple Sweet 16 games were heart-stopping affairs—we many not have ended up with Cinderellas, but we still got some unforgettable moments. In total, 19 of the tournament’s 67 games featured a lower seed beating a higher seed, including some of the best action from the second weekend. We can only rank the upsets we’re given.

1. No. 5 Auburn 97, No. 1 North Carolina 80

North Carolina was the second-most popular national champion pick in ESPN’s Tournament Challenge, but the sweet-shooting Tigers had other ideas. Star guards Jared Harper and Bryce Brown combined for just 21 points, their second-lowest total in any of the 30 games Auburn has won this year. But Chuma Okeke (who left the game with just over eight minutes left after tearing his ACL), Malik Dunbar, Danjel Purifoy and J’Von McCormick filled the void. The Tigers made 17 of their 37 three-point attempts, and everyone waiting for a UNC comeback finally got the message after Anfernee McLemore banked in a three with roughly 10 minutes to play.

2. No. 13 UC Irvine 70, No. 4 Kansas State 64

The Anteaters weren’t quite as trendy of a pre-tournament upset pick as Ja Morant and Murray State, but they came into the tournament with some buzz after cruising to the Big West title and turned in a performance the other eight Big West teams were all too familiar with. UC Irvine's Division I–leading two-point defense held Kansas State to 43.8% shooting inside the arc, and the Wildcats clearly missed second-leading scorer Dean Wade, who was limited by injury for the second straight March. Star guard Max Hazzard shot 5 of 11 from long range and propelled a second-half run that secured the victory.

3. No. 2 Michigan State 68, No. 1 Duke 67

It may be a tad disrespectful to Michigan State to have their Elite Eight win this high, as the Spartans were given a 49.2% chance of winning this game by kenpom.com and won the Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. Still, Duke was the No. 1 overall seed, the most popular national champion pick and the year-long beneficiary of Zion Williamson’s transcendent talent. Point guard and Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston rightfully drew the headlines with his 20 points and 10 assists, and former walk-on Kenny Goins hit the game’s defining shot. But don’t overlook sophomore forward Xavier Tillman, who tied a career high with 19 points on 7-of-11 shooting while also doing his best to slow down Williamson.

4. No. 5 Auburn 77, No. 2 Kentucky 71 (OT)

Auburn was riding high after beating UNC, but it had also lost to Kentucky twice during the regular season, including a 80–53 waxing in Lexington just before the current 11-game winning streak began. The Tigers did not shoot 17 for 37 from deep again (they finished 7 of 23), but the 19 two-pointers they made were their third-most against power conference competition this year, and Harper went 11-for-11 at the line. And they did it all while Okeke sat behind the bench in a wheelchair.

5. No. 12 Murray State 83, No. 5 Marquette 64

There are many formulas for pulling a first-round upset, but one is easier than the others: Have the best player on the court. That was the case for Murray State in its demolition of Marquette, in which Ja Morant had 17 points (on just nine shots), 16 assists, 11 rebounds and one poster dunk. Morant controlled the game from start to finish, turning the most hyped first-round matchup into a blowout favoring the lower seed.

6. No. 3 Texas Tech 75, No. 1 Gonzaga 69

In a classic battle of elite offense and elite defense, Texas Tech slowed down Gonzaga’s scoring threats and finally gained some separation late in the second half. Tariq Owens, Brandone Francis and the Red Raiders’ other frontcourt players forced Bulldogs star forward Rui Hachimura into an 8-for-19 shooting night, which helped counteract Texas Tech leading scorer Jarrett Culver’s 5-for-19 performance. Thankfully for Culver, guards Matt Mooney and Davide Moretti picked up the slack, combining for 29 points.

7. No. 3 Purdue 99, No. 2 Tennessee 94 (OT)

The Ryan Cline game. While it wasn’t much of an upset, this was one of the most fun games of the tournament. It takes a lot to cement your name in Sweet 16 history, but Cline undeniably did so with his long-distance shooting performance. With that fly-fishing form and silky smooth footwork, Cline connected on seven of his 10 long-range attempts, consistently burying shots down the stretch to bail out the Boilermakers after they blew an 18-point lead. Tennessee fans will remember this game for a couple questionable calls (both by the officials and coach Rick Barnes) down the stretch, but it’s Cline’s performance that will endure.

8. No. 11 Ohio State 62, No. 6 Iowa State 59

In the past six years, Iowa State has appeared in the tournament five times—and this year’s No. 6 seed was its lowest ranking in any of those trips to the Big Dance—but it has been bounced in the first round twice and won only five games in total. This year’s dismissal came at the hands of an Ohio State team that was firmly on the bubble and expected by many to land in the First Four. Sturdy Buckeyes forward Kaleb Wesson dominated this game in the post with 21 points and 12 rebounds against the undersized Cyclones.

9. No. 12 Liberty 80, No. 5 Mississippi State 76

The Flames stormed back from a 10-point second-half deficit, Caleb Holmsley scored 30 points on 10-of-16 shooting, and 6'5", 255-pound backup center Myo Baxter-Bell dropped the second-most assists on the team. If not for the school’s leadership, whose political stances range from controversial to morally bankrupt, the Flames would have been embraced more warmly as March underdogs and this game would have been ranked higher. 

10. No. 10 Minnesota 86, No. 7 Louisville 76

This season, Minnesota shot 31.7% from three-point range, ranking 300th in the country. Against Louisville, the Golden Gophers shot 40.7%, led by Gabe Kalscheur’s 5-of-11 day. Star forward Jordan Nwora finished with just 10 points, and Louisville stood no chance of keeping up with the Gophers as they scored 1.34 points per possession.

11. No. 12 Oregon 72, No. 5 Wisconsin 54

The analytics loved Wisconsin, but the Badgers’ slow pace and defense-first approach left them vulnerable. Oregon was the perfect team to exploit that vulnerability, and the Pac-12 tournament champs came to San Jose on fire, having won their past eight games and executing a unique amoeba-like matchup zone that frustrated Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ and limited him to just 12 points.

12. No. 10 Florida 70, No. 7 Nevada 61

The Wolf Pack have made no-showing first halfs before staging epic comebacks a habit, most famously in last year’s second-round upset of Cincinnati, and true to form, they let the Gators get out to a 51–33 lead before storming back to within two in the final minutes. Alas, this strategy of digging double-digit holes didn’t pay off. The Gators, who struggled to win close games for the first two-thirds of the season, got it together just in time to advance to the second round.

13. No, 3 Texas Tech 63, No. 2 Michigan 44

Viewers coming off the high of Tennessee and Purdue’s overtime clash on Sweet 16 Thursday flipped to this matchup between top-three seeds hoping for more fireworks. That was ill-advised. These two teams rank first and second in defensive efficiency, per kenpom. The game was tied 6–6 after 10 minutes. Eventually, Texas Tech started making shots, while Michigan finished 1 for 19 from deep.

14. No. 10 Iowa 79, No. 7 Cincinnati 72

Early on, this looked like a runaway for the AAC tournament champion Bearcats, but the Hawkeyes didn’t go quietly, just as they wouldn’t against Tennessee in the next round. This game was fun, but it wasn’t much of an upset. The strength of the Big Ten was on full display after Iowa’s comeback win put the conference on track for a 7–1 performance in the first round.

15. No. 9 Baylor 78, No. 8 Syracuse 69

16. No. 9 Oklahoma 95, No. 8 Ole Miss 72

17. No. 9 Washington 78, No. 8 Utah State 61

18. No. 9 UCF 73, No. 8 VCU 58

Technically these all count as upsets since the lower seed won, but come on. After this year’s clean sweep, 9-seeds are now 72–68 all time against 8-seeds.

19. No. 5 Auburn 89, No. 4 Kansas 75

Auburn can claim two of the best four upsets in this tournament, but this isn’t one of them. The Tigers entered this game as 2.5-point betting favorites and cruised to victory. This game wasn’t as much an upset as an example of the committee’s seeding failures.

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