PITTSBURGH — Sometimes it feels as though we are on the outside of this magical American three-week hoop holiday. It’s like the Miss America pageant, the national Mickey Rourke Tanning Championships, or a competition to see who can make the best chicken fried steak.
Technically, our quaint little Boston schools are eligible, and usually one or two earn an invitation to the Big Dance, but nobody really takes us seriously. We are spectators in this Bracket Bonanza, like folks in Miami watching the Winter Olympics.
Not Thursday. As part of a subregional grouping that included the mighty likes of Villanova, LSU, Texas, and Notre Dame, Northeastern University came to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in a quarter-century and scared the hell out of the ACC champs from South Bend, Ind., before losing by 4 points. A few hours later, little Harvard lost to behemoth North Carolina by a mere 2 points
In the first game of the tournament, Notre Dame advanced with a 69-65 win over Northeastern’s Huntington Avenue ballers, but there was nothing perfunctory or casual about any of the 40 minutes. In fact, with less than 30 seconds to play, Northeastern trailed by 2 and had the basketball, which meant they could have sent the Irish home with a 3-pointer at the buzzer.
It didn’t happen. The Huskies were out of timeouts and turned the ball over in a mad scramble. But this was a day when the champions of the cloaked-in-anonymity Colonial Athletic Association were not the least bit intimidated or outclassed by the champions of the vaunted Atlantic Coast Conference.
“I don’t think there was any fear factor,’’ said Northeastern coach Bill Coen. “This group really didn’t concern me coming into the game. We try to schedule teams from high-powered conferences when we play our nonconference schedule. We do that in hopes they’ll draw on that experience.’’
They did. The Irish last week had to beat college basketball royals Duke and North Carolina, on back-to-back days in North Carolina, in order to win the ACC. The Huskies, meanwhile, were prevailing over the likes of Delaware, North Carolina-Wilmington, and William & Mary to get to Pittsburgh.
Delaware, UNCW, and William & Mary are very fine schools with nice coaches, but it is not like matching wits with Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski. If you’re talking college basketball, you take Tobacco Road over Symphony Road every time.
But the humble Huskies did not cower at the Under Armour-covered feet of the third-seeded Fighting Irish. Husky guard David Walker thumped his chest after draining a game-opening three, and NU senior forward Scott Eatherton went toe-to-toe with ND giant Zach Auguste.
The Huskies trailed by 12 with six minutes to play but came back in furious fashion and had a legit chance to pull off a rare No. 14 seed upset of a No. 3 seed.
The end was somewhat excruciating for Husky Nation, which made a nice showing at the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
A program that gave the basketball world the likes of Rick Weitzman, Reggie Lewis, and Jim Calhoun, Northeastern brought a Beanpot atmosphere to the madness. The Northeastern band was louder and better than the Irish band, and there were more fans from Boston than from Notre Dame.
Since everyone roots for the underdog, the building came to life in the closing seconds when it looked as though we might see an upset on a par with Cleveland State (coached by Somerville’s Kevin Mackey) over Indiana (coached by Bobby Knight) in 1986.
After Eatherton’s bucket cut ND’s lead to 2, NU called its last timeout to set up its full-court defense with 32.5 seconds remaining. Pat Connaughton (a native son of Arlington, Mass., and a grad of St. John’s Prep) was assigned the task of inbounding the basketball for Notre Dame. When NU shut down Connaughton’s first attempt, he called time and there was a second pause.
After the second timeout, Connaughton set up to pass again, and when he was stymied, he elected to throw a court-length baseball pass to Demetrius Jackson. It should be no surprise that Connaughton would throw a baseball pass. He’s a pitcher in the Baltimore Orioles system. He’s a Dan Duquette guy. He has a golden arm.
But his aim was not true. His 94-foot heave was too long. Jackson lunged and kept the pass from going into the stands, but Northeastern’s Zach Stahl corralled the basketball and the crowd stood as all 10 players ran down to the other end.
It was a scramble. The Huskies were out of timeouts. They never even got a shot off before Jerian Grant stripped Quincy Ford. Ballgame.
“I was beyond confident, almost too confident,’’ said Ford, a junior from Florida. “I knew something special was going to happen.’’
“My hope is that people would respect our effort today,’’ said Coen. “We were carrying the banner for the Colonial, so we wanted to make sure that we represented the CAA in good fashion and hopefully we did so today.’’
Mission accomplished. It felt like the school from Boston belonged here. And that’s a start.Dan Shaughnessy can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Shaughnessy.