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IUPUI follows orders, enjoys NCAA experience

NASHVILLE -- Matt Crenshaw gave a talk to his IUPUI teammates on Wednesday, about what they were watching on TV. It wasn't basketball. It was what almost every channel besides ESPN was covering.

His teammates were curious about what the U.S. soldiers are going through right now in the Middle East. Crenshaw knows. The Jaguars' junior point guard, closer to senior citizenship than any other player in Division 1 (he's 27), served six years in the Navy before beginning his college hoops career.

"Half my team broke down in tears after that talk," said IUPUI coach Ron Hunter. "It was a very, very emotional moment."

The Jaguars have been going through all sorts of emotions since winning their first NCAA Tournament bid last week. Crenshaw hit the shot that sent them dancing, an 18-footer with one second left against Valparaiso in the Mid-Continent Conference championship game. He and his teammates did their best to focus on the task at hand Friday afternoon -- namely, knocking off the No. 1 team in the nation, Kentucky.

"I have some Marine friends who are over in Kuwait," said Crenshaw. "I got some e-mails from some friends and they told me to just stay focused, and to just go out and play and have a good time as if the situation wasn't going on."

The Jaguars tried their best -- but they were no match for the Wildcats, falling 95-64.

"We played the best team in the country, and there's no close second," Hunter said. "Kentucky's got McDonald's All-Americans. Our kids eat McDonald's."

But you know what? The Jags and their fans had a blast, anyway. Section 107 of the Gaylord Entertainment Center was on its feet cheering during warm ups, led by IUPUI mascot Jinx the Jaguar (who looks more like a bear with a bad case of chicken pox), while Kentucky's sea of blue sat back and relaxed.

But once the ball was tipped, Tubby Smith's team wouldn't let the Jags relax for a second, pressing them full-court on defense. The 'Cats sprinted out to a 20-point lead at the half. But IUPUI wasn't about to give up. When senior forward Josh Murray scored a three-point play to cut the lead to 17 midway through the second half, Section 107 screamed and Hunter yelled and pumped his fist repeatedly. So what if Kentucky guard Gerald Fitch erased it 10 seconds later with a trey?

Hunter may be the only coach in America more fun to watch than his team -- and that's no slight against his team. After IUPUI's win over Valpo, Hunter did a sliding bellyflop at center court and burned two holes in his pants. Two years ago, he stomped on the floor so hard in a game against Youngstown State that he broke his leg. He doesn't just make subs -- he literally drags players to the scorer's table.

His kids are just as animated, Crenshaw diving headfirst over press row at one point on Friday. Hunter never stopped coaching. His team never stopped playing. And they were all still able to smile after the game.

"Kentucky's the truth, I gotta take my hat and my headband off to them," said Murray. "But a couple of their coaches and players told me afterwards that they respected our effort, which made me feel good."

The Jags should feel good. They took their school to the tournament in only its fifth year of Division 1 play, and brought some positive attention to a commuter school (Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis, for those who don't know) where only 300 of its 27,000 students live on campus.

"We took a little small school that no one had ever heard of, and these kids put them on the map," said Hunter.

As we're learning during this March Madness, some things on TV are more important than others.

And sometimes David is more important than Goliath.

Even when David loses by 31.

Kieran Darcy is a writer for ESPN The Magazine and frequent contributor to ESPN.com.