Still waiting for the biggest upset of them all

Still waiting for the biggest upset of them all
March 21, 2014, 11:30 am
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Every year, we see a lot of lopsided match-ups in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, but according to Las Vegas, this year’s most uneven endeavor took place on Thursday afternoon in Orlando.

On one end, you had the Florida Gators. Not only a No. 1 seed, but THE No. 1 seed. A team that hadn’t lost since December 2, had just completed the first undefeated season in SEC history, and was led by a core of upper classmen that have made three straight appearances in the Elite Eight.

On the other side: The No. 16 seed University of Albany Great Danes. Not only the last seed in the tournament, but a crew that had to win a play-in game just to earn that right. A team that went 9-7 in the America East this season, 19-15 overall, and along the way, suffered losses to the likes of UNH, Quinnipiac and UMass-Lowell.

Florida was favored by 22 points.

To make matters worse, the game was in the heart of Gator country (the Amway Center is less than a two-hour drive from Gainesville) and in the hours leading up to the game, Orlando was infested. A mosaic of blue and orange. Inside the arena, that’s just about all you could see — human gators. Puffing out their chests, chomping their arms and ready for a blood bath.

But among the sea of Gators, there was a tiny patch of purple. In this case, a section and a half of Great Dane faithful, who had put their wallets and pride on the line to make the trip down south and watch their team take a stab at history.

And you know what? I was right there with them. Not because I’m an Albany fan, but because I’m a fan of the 16th seed. Any 16 seed. After nearly 30 years of waiting for the ultimate upset in an event that’s defined by upsets, I’m starting to get antsy. Aren’t we all? It has to happen at some point. Sure, it would be crazy, but not as crazy as the fact that it hasn’t happened yet. So why not now? Why not the Danes?

My friend happened to be covering the game, so I went along, bought a ticket, snuck into the Albany section and immersed myself in their wildest hopes and dreams. I was all in. We were going to do this.  

“Did you see the weather report today?” asked Greg, a UofA student who broke from a golf trip in West Palm Beach to come to Orlando with his Dad. “They’re calling for a 60 percent chance of upset.”

And early on, it looked like the weatherman was onto something. The Danes jumped out to a 7-3 advantage. Florida took the lead for the first time at 10-9, but Albany bounced right back, and with 9:58 left senior Peter Hooley hit a jumper to go up 17-14.

Here’s where the word impossible begins to lose all meaning. Here’s when you can start to rationalize anything. At this point, a quarter of the game had gone by, and Albany was still on top. Why can’t they do the same thing for three more 10-minute segments? The answer is that they can. Whether or not that’s likely doesn’t matter. If they did it once, they can do it again. And again. And again. All that matters is hope.

The Danes were doing everything right. They clearly understood every ingredient of pulling off an upset of this magnitude. They were insanely deliberate on offense. Milking the clock on every possession, and preventing the Gators from catching rhythm. On defense, they sagged off the perimeter, refusing to get beat off the dribble and instead electing to suffocate Patric Young, Florida’s beast of a center. And the Gators were missing. Wide open jumper after wide-open jumper. With every clank the Danes gained strength, and that small patch of purple slowly took control of the arena. We were ecstatic. Jumping around. High fiving in the aisles. Hope was not fleeting. It was real.

A three-pointer by point guard DJ Evans gave the Danes a 26-24 lead with 7:02 to play. A Luke Devlin jumper tied the game at 28-28 with 4:44 left. With 3:36 left in the half, Albany called a timeout, down 32-28, and it was clear that any chance they had of pulling off this miracle would lie in the final minutes of the half. They needed to hang strong. They couldn’t waste this effort.

Over the final 3:36, they scored zero points.

But they only gave up two. Halftime score: 34-28.

“So how do you feel?” I asked Greg.

“I feel like this is a six-point game at the half. I feel like I would’ve taken that in a second before this started. I feel like the weatherman was right. These first few minutes will be huge.”

And the Danes didn’t go away. Florida flexed their muscles at various points, but never so much that it deflated what Albany was working with. Evans scored four straight points to cut Florida’s lead to 37-35 with 16:28 left. Hooley hit a three to make it 39-38 with 15:17 left, and then a foul shot at the 14:32 mark to tie the game at 39.

Here’s where you wish you could just hit fast forward. When you fully understand that the longer this game drags out the more likely it is that Florida wakes up, or just as likely, Albany wakes up. Either way, reality is restored and it all comes crashing down. That’s the hardest part about upsets like this — 40 minutes is a long time. That’s a lot of possessions, even with a 35 second clock. That’s a long time for Cinderella to be perfect. Long enough that luck and chance have very little to do with it. You only win a game like this if you absolutely win it.

And on the next possession, Florida won it.

Will Yeguete missed a lay-up in traffic, Young picked up the offensive rebound, turned, got fouled and unleashed a monstrous dunk. The kind of power you just don’t come across in the America East. A display of manhood that quickly reminded everyone of the reality of this situation. It’s rattled the rim and by the time it came to a rest, hope was dead. We knew that was it. The dream was over. The Gator masses exploded. The Danes were dejected. Everyone was awake.

Young hit the foul shot to go up 42-39. Then it was 44-39, then 46-39, then 48-39, and from there it never got closer to seven. Final score: Florida 67, Albany 55.

For 25 minutes, Albany was right there. They proved that the upset was possible. But like so many other 16 seeds before them, those possibilities never came to be. Not for a lack of effort, but a lack of execution. They weren’t as perfect as they needed to be for as long as they needed to be. And there’s no shame that.

But there’s disappointment. There’s knowing that while you’ll ultimately go down as one of the hundred No. 16 seeds that couldn’t get it done, you really could have. It wasn’t impossible. It was real. More real than the final score. After all, that’ll soon be forgotten. History won’t remember that Albany gave Florida a scare in the first round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament.

History will only remember the first one to win.

And make no mistake, it will happen. It could be as early as today, or next year or five years or a decade from now, but we will see a No. 16 beat a No. 1. It’s coming. And it will be amazing.

But for one day, it was a lot fun to watch the Danes give it their best shot.

Follow me on Twitter: @rich_levine