INDIANAPOLIS — This time, Cinderella was late. The clock had, literally, already struck midnight at Lucas Oil Stadium by the time No. 14 seed Abilene Christian showed up in earnest at the dance, as junior forward Joe Pleasant made his way to the foul line. Somewhere in a chaotic scramble that followed a clutch Texas three and a key Texas block, Pleasant wound up central enough to the fray to draw a foul from Longhorns guard Matt Coleman with 1.2 seconds remaining, down by one. The stakes, of course, also lay in the fact that Pleasant had made just 58.5% of his free throws on the year.
Abilene Christian has only been a Division I team since 2013–14, when it finished 348th out of all 351 teams in Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency metrics. So of course, after some brief visualization, breathing, and calm focus on the rim, Pleasant sank both, as March does. “It’s a mental thing,” he’d later say. "I work on it so much. It’s no different than when there is no one in the gym.”
What he couldn’t see coming was his own leaping steal of the ensuing, desperate inbounds hurl from Brock Cunningham. Abilene Christian had turned Texas’s worst run-and-gun inclinations against it, inciting a 53–52 rockfight that the Wildcats controlled for most of 40 minutes. It was, arguably, the most fun anyone can have while shooting 29% from the field as a team. The Wildcats became the first group in the last decade to win a tournament game on sub-30% makes. They were led in minutes by tenacious senior Reggie Miller, (this, of course, is Indianapolis), who set the tone for the night early with physical play.
“Little old Abilene Christian out in west Texas built a program and went toe-to-toe with Texas,” head coach Joe Golding told reporters postgame. “It’s an incredible story.”
Abilene overcame a massive athletic disadvantage with ferocity and very little else, forcing 23 turnovers to just 11 of its own. Six-foot guards Miller and Coryon Mason and 5’ 7” Damien Daniels worked in tandem for most of the game. Six-foot-five, 264-pound Airion Simmons was pitted against future NBA first-round pick Kai Jones (6’ 11”, 218) and 6’ 10”, 245-pound Jericho Sims for long stretches. But the Longhorns, despite making 45% of their shots, were never permitted to be comfortable. Abilene clawed at 50–50 balls and stepped in front of wayward drivers as Texas’s early confidence devolved to sheer nerves. The intensity demanded veteran focus, so much that Shaka Smart played blue-chip freshman Greg Brown for just six minutes, and never used him in the second half.
By the final minute of the game, there was literally blood on the floor, and with Abilene up two, Texas guard Andrew Jones hit a three with 13.8 seconds left. However brief, it was a moment the junior richly deserved after a battle with cancer that could have derailed his career. Let it be remembered that the Longhorns were that close to winning, with Kai Jones’s critical block on Daniels nearly saving the game.
Pleasant, the newly minted hero, later draped his left arm lovingly around the shoulder of Golding, who has been at the helm of the program for 10 years, predating its time in Division I. It took the Wildcats five years in the Southland conference just to finish .500. Their first stop at the men's NCAA tourney came in 2019, where their 27–7 team got a wakeup call from Kentucky. They were in second place in the league when COVID-19 hit one year ago. This was a long time coming, and Pleasant pumped his other arm with a grin to acknowledge the couple-hundred, very vocal fans who had gathered in Indy for this moment. They’ll stick around, too, as Abilene Christian will face No. 11 seed UCLA on Monday for a very attainable trip to the Sweet 16.
This game warranted more witnesses than were present, but of course, there’s a lot going on right now. The night was supposed to end with Oregon-VCU, before the news hit that the Rams would forfeit their first-round game due to positive COVID-19 tests within the program. VCU coach Mike Rhodes had the right perspective on the matter in the moment—the global toll COVID-19 has taken far outstrips the outcome of a basketball game.
Teams have braced for the unexpected all year. But on a micro-level, this is exactly what the NCAA had to be afraid of, even if there’s no admitting it. The question was simply one of scale, which, for now, remains relatively small. The 32 teams left in Indianapolis can only hope that this was the extent of the impact. But there are five more rounds, and two more weeks to go.
“COVID is a real thing,” Golding said. “We had social injustice. We had a presidential election that divided our country. We needed March Madness. We needed people filling out brackets.”
Need? Maybe not. Yet in some sense, Golding was right. There should be no losing sight of what’s really important. The teams and players gathered in Indy under quarantine certainly don’t have that luxury, either. We can agree, however, that the basketball has been a welcome respite. —Jeremy Woo
Just as suddenly as last year, the season was over in heartbreaking fashion for VCU men's basketball. (By Pat Forde)
Ohio is dancing on after upsetting Virginia, but the Bobcats' Saturday win is extra special for Ben Vander Plas and his family. (By Ross Dellenger)
Meet Leslie Thomas: Army veteran, perfectionist and mother/personal coach of LSU freshman star Cameron Thomas. (By Ross Dellenger)
The weird bubble requests at the men's NCAA tournament include a ukulele and five tons of laundry. (By Ross Dellenger)
The men's NCAA tournament’s uniquely hyperlocal setting provided a fascinating return of wall-to-wall March Madness. (By Pat Forde)
Miss anything from Saturday's men's action? Let us catch you up.
Best Thing We Saw
Drew Timme’s mustache just keeps getting better. This is championship-level facial hair.
Pick 'Em: Women's and Men's:
SI's Molly Geary makes her picks for eight of the women's first-round games on Sunday:
No. 5 Iowa over No. 12 Central Michigan: Expect this to be an explosive, high-scoring affair to kick off the women's tourney, but Hawkeyes All-American freshman Caitlin Clark will be the difference
No. 4 Kentucky over No. 13 Idaho State: Rhyne Howard will lead the way past the Bengals' balanced attack.
No. 11 FGCU over No. 6 Michigan: Kierstan Bell vs. Naz Hillmon is a dynamite first-round scoring storyline. The Wolverines have lost four of six; give me the Eagles to spring the upset.
No. 1 UConn over No. 16 High Point: No Geno Auriemma, no problem for the top-seeded Huskies.
No. 12 Stephen F. Austin over No. 5 Georgia Tech: The Ladyjacks' stifling defense will lead the way into the second round.
No. 8 Oregon State over No. 9 Florida State: Despite a loss to powerhouse Stanford in the Pac-12 title game, the Beavers are clicking at the right time.
No. 3 Tennessee over No. 14 Middle Tennessee: Anastasia Hayes may help the Lady Raiders put up a fight for a bit, but Rennia Davis and the Vols will prove to be too much.
No. 8 Oklahoma State over No. 9 Wake Forest: Natasha Mack and Ja'Mee Asberry will power the Cowgirls into a date with No. 1 overall seed Stanford.
SI's Kevin Sweeney makes his picks for Sunday's men's second round games:
No. 1 Illinois over No. 8 Loyola Chicago: The Ramblers will make life difficult for Ayo Dosunmu and Co., but the Illini outlast a tough, well-coached Loyola bunch.
No. 1 Baylor over No. 9 Wisconsin: Wisconsin hasn’t won consecutive games since January, and it’s hard to believe it will shoot it as well as it did against UNC. Bears roll.
No. 11 Syracuse over No. 3 West Virginia: Never bet against Syracuse once they get to the NCAA tournament … especially with Buddy Boeheim putting on his best JJ Redick impersonation this month.
No. 3 Arkansas over No. 6 Texas Tech: Arkansas’s combination of pace, space and scoring depth makes them a tough cover for a Texas Tech team that wants to grind out possessions in the halfcourt.
No. 2 Houston over No. 10 Rutgers: Expect this one to be a defensive slugfest, but the Cougars have a bit more firepower and will end Rutgers’s dream season.
No. 7 Florida over No. 15 Oral Roberts: Abmas and Obanor are special, but it’s hard to find the magic twice. Gators to the Sweet 16.
No. 13 North Texas over No. 5 Villanova: The Mean Green's defensive effort was incredibly impressive against Purdue. The Wildcats are very different stylistically, but Grant McCasland’s club will be ready.
No. 4 Oklahoma State over No. 12 Oregon State: Oregon State looks elite all of a sudden, but it hasn’t seen a player like Cade Cunningham this season.
In a wide-open women's college basketball season where every team in the field of 64 enters the tournament with at least one loss, only one of the four No. 1 seeds (Stanford, UConn, NC State, South Carolina) will reach the Final Four. —Molly Geary
At the Buzzer
On Friday, Lisa Byington made history as the first woman to do national play-by-play for a men's NCAA tournament game. On Saturday night, she was on the call for Abilene Christian's thrilling upset of Texas, getting to deliver the words that will replay on March Madness 2021 tournament reels to come —M.G.
"Brock Cunningham's gonna take it out from the baseline ... the baseball court pass ... Believe the unbelievable! Abilene Christian with the biggest win in school history! The first NCAA tournament win in school history!"