America had to wait 33 years for a 16 seed to shock a number 1 in the NCAA Tournament, which expanded to its current 64-team (now plus-4) format in 1985. There were some close calls but not until UMBC stunned Virginia, 74-54 (game was tied at 21 at halftime) in 2018 did one of the bottom dwellers break through against a top seed.
The 15 seeds punched through a lot earlier, first in 1991. And it’s happened eight times since. Keep that in mind as the Wildcats of Kentucky, a 2 seed, meet up with Number 15 St. Peter’s Thursday night.
And for a few years there, your humble typist was a regular albatross for the Number 2s and a lucky charm for the 15s. I was court-side for the first 15-2 upset and the for fourth, as well.
As far as I could tell, I was the only human on the planet at the time who could make the same claim (anybody else out there who can say the same – let me hear from you).
In 1991 I was in my third year with the NCAA Radio Network as a site reporter. Back then, we did only a select few games with a full play-by-play crew; at other sites there were people like me who did occasional reports and if there was overlap, we would close out the game by calling play-by-play for the last couple of minutes.
I was sent to one of the East sub-Regional sites in College Park, Maryland, the same place Texas Western spilled Rupp’s Runts and North Carolina eliminated Kentucky in 1977, Joe B. Hall’s best (it says here) UK squad.
I couldn’t get over the spartan atmosphere of Cole Fieldhouse. It was a quonset hut, likely an afterthought when the Maryland Terrapins started playing college basketball.
But by game time it came alive. We were in ACC country, so North Carolina State put fannies in the seats for the Wolfpack’s win over Southern Miss. Eddie Sutton’s Oklahoma State team knocked off New Mexico, coached by Dave Bliss – the same guy who some years later left Baylor in disgrace, after trying to cover up the murder of one player by another.
John Chaney’s Temple team, seeded 10th, surprised Number 7 Purdue which left Syracuse and Richmond in the nightcap.
The Orange featured an All-America low post player named Billy Owens, the Big East Player of the Year who was good for 23 points per game and later would be the third player chosen in the NBA draft.
The Spiders had crafty head coach Dick Tarrant and some equally heady players. Tarrant previously had coached Richmond to some NCAA tournament upsets. It was 12th-seeded Richmond that knocked off Charles Barkley’s Number 5 Auburn team in the first round in 1984 – meaning, Sir Charles had lost to Kentucky on a last-second shot in the SEC Tournament finals and then Richmond in the NCAA first round.
The Spiders also spilled both Indiana and Georgia as a 13-seed in 1988, en route to the Sweet 16. But when it came to the matchup with Syracuse, nobody could match up with Owens.
As it turned out, that didn’t matter.
Tarrant had the Spiders constantly changing defenses, which helped them build a 10-point halftime lead. And down the stretch, two Orange starters, guard Adrian Autry and forward Dave Johnson, fouled out. At crucial times, Syracuse couldn’t find a way to consistently get the ball to Owens.
Still, Syracuse sliced the deficit to a single point, 70-69, with 21 seconds left. That’s when the Orange fouled Richmond freshman guard Eugene Burroughs, who had shot 14 free throws all season (making 11).
He hit the first, winked at someone in the stands, and buried the second. Syracuse missed a couple of three-point attempts, Richmond added one more free throw and the first 15-over-2 upset was complete.
Two years later, Santa Clara shocked Arizona, 64-61 and in 1997, Coppin State spilled South Carolina, 78-65. That SC team, coached by Eddie Fogler, had beaten Rick Pitino’s Kentucky Wildcats twice during the regular season, including the finale in Rupp Arena — on Senior Night, no less. In fact, Pitino was officially ejected from the game, even though there was no time left on the clock.
Zip ahead to 2001, to Bosie, Idaho, where Number 2 Iowa State was paired up with 15-seed Hampton. I was there, again with the NCAA Radio Network only this time, as the producer with a crew that broadcast full play-by-play.
On that first day we worked all four games and three of them were upsets including, yes, the 15 over the 2. Once again, I was court-side.
The Cyclones had All-America guard Jamaal Tinsley, the Big 12 Player of the year who, like Syracuse’s Owens, would go on to a long career in the NBA.
But it wasn’t his night.
Hampton’s 6-foot-9 forward, Tarvis Brown, had the game of his life, scoring 16 points and grabbing 13 rebounds.
Tinsley would finish with only nine but it still looked good for ISU in the closing minutes. The Pirates trailed, 57-48 with 7:00 left on the clock. Iowa State never scored again.
Hampton patiently ate into the deficit and after a timeout with 6.7 seconds, on a designed play called “Winner,” Tarvis dropped in a jump-hook that gave the Pirates a 58-57 lead.
Everybody in the Boise State University Pavilion knew the ball was going to Tinsley, which it did. He drove the lane, got to the rim – and missed. The shot rolled off and the celebration was on.
Across the court from our broadcast position, Hampton coach Steve Merfeld celebrated with his players. One of them lifted him up with Merfeld’s arms and legs splayed in four different directions. For years it was one of the more iconic images you’d see on CBS Sports.
Unfortunately, I never got to see it firsthand.
While Merfeld was being hoisted, another Hampton player raced across the court and leaped up onto the press table, towering over our broadcast equipment, my announcers and my engineer. I quickly leaped to my feet and played defense – ready to catch him if he fell onto my crew. Luckily, we all survived.
It would be another 11 years before a 15 stunned a 2 – that happened in 2012, when Lehigh upset the Duke Blue Devils. UK fans will tell you that was the second-best thing that happened in the NCAA Tournament that year.
Oral Roberts did it to Ohio State last year, just the ninth time in 144 15-vs-2 matchups. St. Peter’s is itching to make it 10.