PITTSBURGH -- J.P. Primm led his team through the hallways of the Consol Energy Center, chanting, "It’s not the size of the dog.’’ His No. 16-seeded UNC Asheville team backed him in the fight and almost made history.
But like the 108 teams that came before them since 1985, the Bulldogs failed to rewrite the longest-held NCAA tournament tenet: A No. 1 seed has never lost to a 16tth seed since the tourney was expanded 27 years ago. In the end, UNC Asheville joined their underdog brethren and lost 72-65 to Syracuse.
Soon, maybe before this night is over, we will move on to another team, another Cinderella, and UNC Asheville will just be another footnote.
If only it were so easy for Primm to forget. The senior will relive this one for a long time, not just ruminating on what might have been, but also wondering if it should have been.
He and the thousands of UNC Asheville fans born in the two hours between opening tip and final buzzer headed to the exits left more disillusioned than disappointed.
“It’s frustrating when you play that hard and that tough for 40 minutes against one of the top teams in the country, to have a couple of calls that don’t go your way, it just takes the air out of you.’’
Primm was referring to two late-game calls that went against the Bulldogs. With 1:20 left and the Bulldogs trailing by four, Scoop Jardine appeared to miss the front end of a one-and-one. Instead Primm was called for a lane violation. Official Ed Corbett said the violation was clear, that Primm, who was outside the box, released before the ball hit the rim.
Instead of a miss and a Bulldog ball, Jardine then sank both free throws.
Then, down 66-63, Asheville turned up the defensive pressure with a full-court press that seemed to stifle the Orange. A toss to the sideline by the Asheville bench appeared to go off Brandon Triche's hands.
Instead Corbett ruled it tipped off an Asheville player. The play, Corbett said, was not reviewable. USA Today reported that John Adams, the NCAA's head of officiating for men's basketball, said on TruTv that "I'm not going to alibi for the gentlemen in the game. They work their butts off. When you see this call, it's either a foul or you give it to the other team that didn't knock the ball out of bounds. He didn't get it right."
Primm acknowledged that nothing was guaranteed, that even if the calls had gone for them, the Bulldogs still had work to do. He just wanted the chance.
“You’re in it and then that happens, it just deflates you. The air just goes right out of you,’’ he said. “I’ll watch it again and it will hurt. I just hope those guys watch it, too.’’
The controversial finish masked the real story. Syracuse, insisting that neither Fab Melo's suspension nor any of the other issues would distract them, played an awful lot like a team with other things on its mind.
The Orange came out horribly flat, unable to solve Asheville's zone defense. Instead of looking for creases and seams, as teams do against Syracuse, they passed the ball around the perimeter, jacking up 13 3-pointers. They made only one.
“We haven’t attacked zones, even though we play it and work against it every day," Jim Boeheim said. “When you make those shots against zones, it’s a different world."
That allowed the Bulldogs to not only stay in it, but to take a four-point lead at the break. When you let a good team, regardless of the seed, hang around, you allow that little nugget of hope to blossom.
UNC Asheville, with four seniors on its roster, didn’t need much else.
The Bulldogs played about as smart and as hard a game as a team can play in their situation, resisting the urge to go-go-go like they usually do, opting instead to methodically and carefully pick apart the Syracuse zone. The Bulldogs dished out 17 assists on 21 made baskets, and despite leading scorer Matt Dickey shooting just 1-of-13 were never officially out of the game until it was over.
“Basketball is not a game of perfect,’’ Eddie Biedenbach said. “We made some mistakes and it cost us. But they made plenty of mistakes and some of them didn’t cost them. I don’t want to comment on officiating. I think to answer [the] question best, that big replay machine up on top, you heard the crowd reaction.’’
The reality is it is emotionally harder to lose close as a 16, but it is tougher to play as a top seed. The Bulldogs had nothing to lose. No one, save the guys in the locker room, really thought they had a chance to win this game.
On the other bench, since the Melo news broke on Tuesday, most people have been trying to figure out when, not if, Syracuse was going to lose.
“There’s always that team everybody wants to lose; that’s us,’’ Dion Waiters said. “I don’t know. Somebody has it in for Syracuse this year. There’s like a black cloud following us around or something.’’
The Orange have used the run of bad news to circle the wagons even tighter, adopting an us-against-the-world mentality. “I don’t think it’s the whole world,’’ Boeheim joked. “Three-quarters, maybe. I think there’s some people in China that aren’t upset with us.’’
But right now the enemy is within.
Syracuse looked lousy against Cincinnati in the Big East tournament. Afterward, they swore they’d learn from that game, that they’d regroup and come out swinging in the only tournament that really mattered.
Instead they created more doubters in their debut.
They are the big dogs in this tournament.
They need to find the fight.