Two More Cards Punched. More great theater tonight, as we now have fourteen auto-bids handed out, nearly half the total allotment.
- Big Sky. Montana 66, Weber State 65. It was pure Hollywood, a rags-to-riches type of story that when you see it in the theater just know has been embellished because it’s too good to be true. Otherwise, how else to explain the phenomenal story that is Montana’s Anthony Johnson? From the hard-knock life growing up, to the junior college tryout that his then-girlfriend/now-wife negotiated for him, to the unexpected national championship in Yakima, to the repayment of the favor for his wife when tables turned and he was the big shot recruited to Montana, to the cool and steady rise during his two-year career in Missoula, to the snub in this year’s conference POY race, to the 42-point explosion to bring his team back from twenty down at the half when it mattered most. Tonight Anthony Johnson just became the new favorite player of every kid in America and his Grizzlies became the top upset special in next week’s brackets. If we were twelve again, the U of M sweatshirt would already be ordered, and the lunchroom quarrels about who ‘claimed him’ first would already be planned. That’s what happens when you illustrate why March is a form of certifiable insanity, the kind that makes you giddy with amazement with each passing shot. Jumpers, floaters, runners, foul shots and bombs — Johnson showed through a 13-22 FGs (14-14 FTs) shooting exhibition, including the final 21 points of the game for his team, what is possible if you keep your head up, work hard to improve yourself, and believe in your abilities. Montana is now moving on to the NCAA Tournament because the player they call AJ walked down that road, saw what he liked, and decided to keep moving forward.
- NEC. Robert Morris 52, Quinnipiac 50. The best two teams in the NEC faced off in Connecticut tonight on QU’s home court, yet it was the Colonials of Robert Morris who walked away with the trophy and the golden ticket to the NCAAs for the second consecutive season. RMU head coach Mike Rice preached after the game that the only way to win one-bid leagues such as the NEC is through hard-nosed team defense like he learned as an assistant at Pittsburgh across town, and in another low-scoring affair tonight it was senior forward Dallas Green who manifested that ethos by deflecting a potential game-winning shot by Quinnipiac and then hitting two FTs to seal the game. Last year Bob Morris received a #15 seed and played eventual national runner-up Michigan State tough for a half. That was a poor matchup for the Colonials, but if they could get a more finesse-oriented team this year in the first round, they’d have a better shot at springing a gigantic upset.
Conference Tourneys. For additional information on the Big East Tournament and Big 12 Tournament from our correspondents at the scene, check out their daily diaries.