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'Ridiculous' as it seems, UNCW dunks USC

SACRAMENTO -- There was no reason for young Stew Hare of UNC Wilmington to believe he could take Sam Clancy off the dribble and throw down a game-deciding dunk that would be felt from Sacramento to Duke, but he did it anyway.

There was no reason for any of the 13th-seeded UNC Wilmington Seahawks to believe they could build a 19-point second-half lead on the No. 4 seeded USC Trojans, then lose every bit of that lead, then somehow come back and win in overtime.

No reason, but they did it anyway.

Reason and logic had nothing to do with what took place in the first round of the South Regional in Sacramento, a city that is managing to be both South and Midwest this weekend. And that implausibility is exactly why the place to be last night was a 20-by-40 foot afterthought of a room off a back alley in the underside Arco Arena.

This is what happens when joy and surprise and disbelief come together in one place. This is where it was okay to say you didn't think they could do it and not risk insulting someone. They don't blame you -- they felt the same way.

This is what happens when self-proclaimed nobodies become somebodies before they even know what that means. They like the sound of it, though. They were beyond excited; they were crazed. Every stupid thing someone said -- and there were many -- got big laughs. It all sounded just right.

The final was UNC Wilmington 93, USC 89, and the Seahawks -- the lowest seed to win on the first day of the tournament -- were still trying to convince themselves it was real 20 minutes afterward.

As soon as a replay of Hare's dunk was shown on the locker-room television, forward Ed Williams started yelling, "Stew, the whole nation just saw that dunk. UNC Wilmington! There it is, baby!"

"Yeah, and the whole nation just said, 'UNC Wilmington -- what the hell is that?" said Tim Burnette, whose defense was a big reason people were wondering.

This was the first postseason win for UNC Wilmington, which is in Wilmington, but you're on your own after that. They were a No. 15 seed two years ago and lost to Cincinnati. Now they get Indiana on Saturday, and you've got to believe there's a chance.

In Wilmington, they'll remember Hare blowing by Sam Clancy for a dunk to make it 87-83 with 34 seconds left. They'll remember it forever, if you want to know the truth, sort of the way the folks at BYU remember Danny Ainge blowing by Notre Dame all those years ago.

Hare had the ball on the right elbow, and there was no reason to expect much of him. He took one dribble toward the lane, got a step on Clancy and decided what the hell. He took two more dribbles, nobody rotated from the weak side and Stew Hare decided to make a memory for himself.

"That was a little bit of a surprise," said UNCW center Craig Callahan. "I mean, Stew can dunk and all, but that's an NBA player, and it's overtime, and we're like, 'Wow, Stew.'"

Stew, a 6-foot-7 senior, was every bit as wow about it himself. Truth be told, he didn't really know what he was doing until he'd already done it.

"The lane parted like the Red Sea," Hare said as his teammates resumed yelling at the television. "I figured I'd get stopped sooner or later, but I just kept going and it never happened. I just went for it."

USC advanced to the round of eight last year and was supposed to be at least as good this year. Wilmington made the Trojans look like a team with too many good players, which sounds nonsensical if you didn't see all five guys on the court take turns attempting to bring USC back from a double-digit deficit all by themselves. Every one of them figured he was good enough to do it, so each tried. It was an exercise in individualized panic.

And with every blown possession and every methodical UNCW successful possession, USC coach Henry Bibby dropped his brow a little closer to his chin. By the time Wilmington built its 19-point lead, it's a wonder Henry could even see.

Wilmington coach Jerry Wainwright put together a tremendous plan, utilizing his team's fundamentals to their fullest. They handled USC's severe press with patience, crossing halfcourt in about 9.4 seconds each time down. They used the shot clock and made it a policy not to allow any easy hoops.

"Every team comes into the tournament expecting to win their game," Callahan said. "They're the only ones who know what they've gone through every day and how hard they've worked. It doesn't always work out that way, but every team expects to win. We did, and look what happened."

They claimed to believe even when the Trojans forced overtime. There weren't many people with them on that count, including Clancy, who stood in the jump circle before the OT smiling and laughing.

"At that point, I'd say they were pretty confident," Hare said. "I guess I better leave it that way: Pretty confident."

As Hare talked, his teammates were still watching the television, this time screaming at the sight of their school's name advancing a line on the South bracket. A member of the Seahawks' contingent shook hands with Hare and said, "That was a ridiculous dunk, Stew. That was the most ridiculous dunk -- ever."

They laughed at that one, but they didn't dispute it. The guy kept going, saying, "You're going to be on SportsCenter all night, Stew. Plays of the Week, even."

Someone mentioned the Sunday Night Conversation, and they all laughed all over again, even harder. The loudest laugh came from Hare himself.

Tim Keown is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. E-mail him at tim.keown@espnmag.com.