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Dellavedova swishes, Sanders misses on First Four's first day


DAYTON, OH -- Listen up, Bracketheads. Time to make yourselves look smart. We have a team and a player for you. Thank us on Thursday.

The team is Saint Mary's, which you might know is in California, but you might not know is in Moraga, California. The player is a 6-foot-4 senior Gaels guard named Matthew Dellavedova. The name rolls right off the tongue, as easily as the three-pointers Dellavedova was raining on Middle Tennessee Tuesday night.

In the nightcap of the two First Four or First Round or whatever you choose to call the play-in games here Tuesday night, St. Mary's overwhelmed the Blue Raiders, mostly because Dellavedova was a question without answers. "He got going early and didn't stop'' was the assessment of MTSU guard Bruce Massey, and that was about right.

Dellavedova came into the game having missed 18 of his previous 19 threes. That meant nothing Tuesday. He made his first two and also turned a steal into a layup, all in the first five minutes. Middle Tennessee proceeded to run half its roster at him over the next 35 minutes, to no great effect. Dellavedova made half of his 14 shots. He was 5-of-7 from three-point range. He had six rebounds and four assists, both team highs.

Dellavedova played 38 minutes. He'd have played 40, if he hadn't cramped up briefly in the second half. "We had to take him out,'' Gaels coach Randy Bennett said. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have.''

It's not as if he isn't well known, at least in some jurisdictions. They love him in Moraga, where he is Saint Mary's all-time leading scorer. They're equally enthused in Australia, where he's from - Dellavedova was part of the Australian National Team that lost to the U.S. in the London Olympics last summer.

Beyond that, Dellavedova is known best by close family and basketball cognoscenti. If the 11th-seeded Gaels get past 6th seed Memphis Thursday, that could change. March can be kind to teams with upperclass point guards peaking at the right time.

The Gaels blew open a tight game in the last five minutes of the first half. MTSU made it interesting briefly in the second half, trailing just 41-38 with 12 minutes to play. Saint Mary's cooled the interest with a 13-4 run in the next six minutes.

Someone asked Bennett if he was concerned with Memphis' quicks. "I don't know if they're going to be any quicker or faster that Middle Tennessee,'' Bennett said.

Go with the Gaels, then. Your bracket will thank you.

In the first game of the First Round/Four, North Carolina A&T won an NCAA tournament game for the first time in its 61-year basketball history, by doing something it doesn't often do: Make a lot of shots.

The Aggies shot 52 percent Tuesday. They came into the game ranked 317th out of 344 Division I teams in field goal percentage. Still, they had to sweat a last-second shot before beating Liberty, 73-72.

When you are Liberty, a school with religious leanings, and you have a basketball player whose middle name is the Biblically relevant "Caleb'' taking your last shot, you might feel pretty good about your chances. John Caleb Sanders was driving the length of the floor, headed for the rim and a basket to win the game.

The Rev. Jerry Falwell founded Liberty. His son is its current chancellor. The Flames trailed A&T by a point. And here came Caleb, Liberty's frenetic point guard, flying down the court after a missed Aggies free throw.

He'd scored 21 points already, from all over the floor. The last two would extend the Flames' improbable run through March.

As he crossed the lane, he ran into Austin Witter, A&T's 6-foot-8 senior forward. The best thing Witter did was nothing at all. He didn't lean into Sanders. He didn't try to block the shot, though he believed he got a small slice of it. Witter stood his ground and let Sanders lean into him. There was contact, but it belonged to Sanders. No foul. Ballgame.

On the sideline, Aggies coach Cy Alexander was performing contortions. He offered big body language the whole game. "I let them know I'm playing for them, surreptitiously,'' he explained. As Sanders made his way down the court, Alexander was positively pretzeled. "When you're working with a group of guys who have never won, they don't know that every play matters.''

The Aggies hadn't been to the tournament since 1995. They'll play uber-No.1 seed Louisville Thursday, in the neutral location of Lexington, Ky. The Aggies were aware that a No. 16 seed has never beaten a No. 1. They didn't much care. As Witter declared, "It's just a statistic. We're still going to play hard, still going to play our game, try and get the win.''

Take the chalk in that one. And don't forget we told you about Dellavedova.