College basketball’s newest giant killers live in nondescript places like Moraga, Calif., and Cedar Falls, Iowa.
They have star players named Omar and Ali.
And Saint Mary’s and Northern Iowa are going to the Sweet 16.
A day after chalk ruled the NCAA tournament, the Gaels and Panthers produced two of the tournament’s most stunning upsets in recent history.
Chaos returned to the NCAA tournament after a 24-hour hiatus on Friday and it came from the most unlikely of sources. After eight double-digit seeds won first-round games, two more won on Saturday and advanced to the Sweet 16.
And that wasn’t even Saturday’s biggest surprise.
Northern Iowa, the No. 9 seed in the Midwest Regional, stunned No. 1 overall seed Kansas 69-67 in a second-round game in Oklahoma City. The Jayhawks, who were seeking their fourth national championship, became the first No. 1 seed to lose in the second round since Kentucky and Stanford lost to UAB and Alabama, respectively, in the 2004 NCAA tournament.
Since the NCAA selection committee started ranking the overall No. 1 seed in 2004, only one (Florida in 2007) has won a national championship.
The Panthers, who finished the regular season with a 25-4 record and won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, lost at Evansville 55-54 less than a month ago. The Purple Aces had a 7-20 record before defeating UNI, which also lost to hapless DePaul early in the season.
Now Northern Iowa can become the first Missouri Valley team to advance past the Sweet 16 since Wichita State in 1981. (By the way, the Shockers knocked off -- you guessed it -- Kansas in the Sweet 16).
After nearly blowing a seven-point lead in the final 78 seconds, the Panthers needed some magic of their own to upset the Jayhawks. With UNI leading by only one point, senior Ali Farokhmanesh passed up conventional wisdom and launched a wide-open 3-pointer with plenty of time left on the shot clock. His 3-pointer was good, giving the Panthers a 66-62 lead with 35 seconds to play. Farokhmanesh, the son of an Iranian Olympic volleyball player, made two foul shots with five seconds left to put Kansas away for good.
The Panthers advanced to play the winner of Sunday’s second-round game between No. 4-seeded Maryland and No. 5-seeded Michigan State in next week’s semifinals of the Midwest Regional in St. Louis.
“If anybody’s going to shoot that shot, I want it to be Ali,” Northern Iowa’s Jake Koch told reporters on Saturday night.
Why not? In Thursday’s first round, Farokhmanesh made a 3-pointer with 4.9 seconds left to beat No. 8-seeded UNLV by a 69-66 score.
Saint Mary’s probably doesn’t want anyone other than center Omar Samhan shooting the basketball, either. Samhan, a senior from San Ramon, Calif., scored 32 points on 13-for-16 shooting and grabbed seven rebounds in the No. 10-seeded Gaels’ 75-68 upset of No. 2 Villanova in a South Regional second-round game in Providence, R.I.
Samhan has led the Gaels to back-to-back upsets, averaging 30.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. His next test will come against No. 3-seeded Baylor in Friday’s semifinals of the South Regional in Houston. The Gaels pulled away from the Wildcats after Mickey McConnell banked in a 25-footer to give them a 68-65 lead with 1:15 to play.
Saint Mary’s, a tiny Catholic school of fewer than 5,000 students, moved past the first round of the NCAA tournament only once before. The Gaels made the Elite Eight in 1959 when only 23 teams were in the field.
“It’s such a small school,” Samhan told reporters on Saturday. “There’s more people at the game [cheering] for Villanova than we have [who are] students at Saint Mary’s.”
Washington was the other double-digit seed to advance to the Sweet 16 on Saturday. The 11th-seeded Huskies won their ninth game in a row, crushing No. 3-seeded New Mexico 82-64 in an East Regional second-round game in San Jose, Calif. It was never close. Forward Quincy Pondexter led the Huskies with 18 points and guard Isaiah Thomas added 15.
Washington will play the winner of Sunday’s second-round game between 2-seed West Virginia and 10-seed Missouri in next week’s East Regional semifinals in Syracuse, N.Y.
“It’s March Madness,” UW coach Lorenzo Romar said. “You come out and need to be only concerned with what you can do. With the parity the way it is today in the college game, anyone can beat anyone and we have been witness of that. In the last couple of days, it’s been March Madness.”
And while it has been maddening for many teams on the East Coast, there are smiles all over the West Coast, a region maligned practically all season. Don't look now, but the Pac-10 and WCC are a combined 6-0 -- and it's no fluke. Three of the victims have come from the Big East and another from the ACC. The other two? A trendy sleeper (Richmond) and a third-seeded, 30-win team (New Mexico).
Meanwhile, Butler -- so often the underdog in the past -- nearly became a victim of March Madness, too. The fifth-seeded Bulldogs needed a 7-2 run in the final 2½ minutes to hold off No. 13 seed Murray State 54-52 in San Jose.
More suspense could be in store for Sunday, with eight more games. In Jacksonville, Fla., eighth-seeded California plays top seed Duke in a South Regional game, and No. 12 Cornell plays No. 4 Wisconsin in an East Regional second-round game. Syracuse, the No. 1 seed in the West, plays No. 8-seeded Gonzaga in Buffalo, N.Y., and second-seeded Ohio State plays No. 10 Georgia Tech in the Midwest Regional in Milwaukee.