Once again, there were no buzzer-beaters, no unexpected upsets or overtime thrillers, but at least the second day of the NCAA Tournament offered a few reasons not to change the channel. Each of the four venues Friday hosted an early game that extracted a welcome dollop of drama, with three decided in the final seconds.
The nail-biting finishes would not include four blue-blood programs, No. 1 seeds Kansas and North Carolina, and No. 2 seeds Duke and Kentucky, each of whom won their games against outmatched opponents with little cause for alarm. Nor would any drama embroil the No. 3 seeds, Baylor, Oregon and UCLA, who handled their business.
No, the most climactic ending involved Southern California, as it often does. Like trick candles at a child’s birthday party, the Trojans just cannot be extinguished. In what was their 13th comeback victory from a double-digit deficit this season, they edged Southern Methodist, 66-65, in the East Region, when the Mustangs’ final shot clanged off the rim.
The Trojans became the second No. 11 seed to oust a No. 6 seed, and a third joined them a few hours later, as Rhode Island never trailed en route to bludgeoning Creighton, 84-72. A fourth No. 11 seed, Kansas State, fell against the defensive juggernaut Cincinnati, which won handily, 75-61.
Amid all the blowouts so far administered by the contenders, the upsets restored some crackle — if not the desired outright mayhem — to the bracket after the least eventful opening day of the tournament since 2000, when the higher seeds went 15-1.
They went 14-2 Thursday, a trend that continued Friday in the first five games — but almost didn’t. Arkansas scored the final seven points while benefiting from a controversial call in the final seconds to defeat Seton Hall, 77-71, in the South. Trailing by one point with about 20 seconds left, the No. 9 Pirates — who lost in their only national championship game appearance, to Michigan in 1989, after a dubious foul call — set about trying to foul Arkansas in order to regain possession quickly.
Desi Rodriguez did so, pushing Jaylen Barford in the back, causing him to fall. The officials called an immediate foul, and after reviewing the play, ruled a Flagrant-1 foul, which awarded Arkansas two foul shots and possession. Barford made both free throws, and Daryl Macon followed by making one of two to seal the victory.
J.D. Collins, the NCAA’s national coordinator of men’s basketball officiating, supported the officials’ decision afterward in an interview on TNT, saying that any time a player “puts two hands in the back and doesn’t make any attempt to play the ball or the player in front of him,” it’s a flagrant-1 foul.
Barford said he was surprised that he was shoved, although Seton Hall coach Kevin Willard disputed Rodriguez’s intent.
“If you’ve been around the game long enough, you’ve got to know time, score — you’ve got to know what’s going on,” Willard said, adding, “But they reffed a good game all night. So I can’t really complain about whether I agree or not. I’m always going to disagree with it. That’s what coaches do.”
Coaches also do not lament what they do not have, and Oregon pressed Friday in its second game without the shot-blocking menace Chris Boucher, who tore a knee ligament last weekend in the Pacific-12 tournament semifinals. Sitting on the bench, Boucher watched his teammates throttle No. 14 Iona, 93-77, in a Midwest Region game that the Ducks once led by 27 points.