Nevada head coach Eric Musselman celebrates as his team defeated Cincinnati during a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn., Sunday, March 18, 2018. Nevada defeated Cincinnati 75-73. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP
Photo: Mark Humphrey/AP

Nevada’s astonishing rally sends the South Regional into sweet chaos

The Wolf Pack overrode a 22-point deficit over the final 11 minutes here Sunday to send No. 2 seed Cincinnati, which was utterly dominant up until the moment when it fell to pieces, to the same place where No. 1 Virginia, No. 3 Tennessee and No. 4 Arizona already resided – in yonder trash can, along with everybody’s brackets.

The Bearcats have made a habit of coming up small in the Big Dance, but they’d never pulled anything like this. They led 10-0 after 116 seconds, 18-4 before the first media timeout, by 12 at the half, by 22 with 10:50 remaining. They were outscored 32-8 thereafter. They lost 75-73.

Cody Martin, usually the lesser scorer among the twins who’d transferred to Reno from North Carolina State, made like Reggie Miller in Madison Square Garden, scoring 25 points to go with seven assists. His brother Caleb’s audacious trey from the right corner with 54.1 seconds left tied the game at 73-73, which beggared belief.

A shaken Cincinnati – hey, who wouldn’t be? – couldn’t muster a decent shot. Jacob Evans III missed under pressure in the lane. Cody Martin finally missed, but Josh Hall powered the rebound home. With 9.1 seconds left, Nevada was ahead. 

Another Cincy timeout yielded an even worse possession. Backup guard Cane Broome tried to drive but lost the ball. The game ended with Gary Clark, the American Conference player of the year, on the floor trying to grab the bouncing ball. He couldn’t. The buzzer sounded. The Nevada players ran toward the other end, scarcely believing what they’d wrought.

And what had they wrought? Only the second-biggest comeback – tied for second, actually – in NCAA tournament annals. Only the biggest second-half comeback in the history of the Big Dance. Only the upset that ensures that the highest seed in Philips will be No. 5 Kentucky. To quote Al McGuire after another astonishing Round 2 victory: Holy mackerel.

Gone are the South’s prospects of a three-pronged pilgrimage down I-75 – to Atlanta from Cincinnati, Lexington and Knoxville. No. 3 seed Tennessee was ousted by Loyola on Saturday. The possibility of this regional being Tony Bennett’s arrival song crashed when UMBC became the first No. 16 seed to fell a No. 1. The chance to see Deandre Ayton, the nation’s best player, in Philips before he’s drafted by the Hawks collapsed in a puddle of Arizona self-pity.

Amid the rubble stands Nevada, the No. 7 seed that overrode a 14-point deficit on Friday to beat Texas in overtime and topped that feat two days later.

“We were struggling so much and they were just dominating the backboard,” Wolf Pack coach Eric Musselman said. “The thing that’s incredible about this game is that we played one of the best defensive teams in the country and had two turnovers. Our pace of play won out.”

Then: “Our locker room – I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. This is something we’ll remember forever.

On a day that had already seen Michigan State fall and North Carolina fall way behind early, the Bearcats hit the floor at Bridgestone Arena as if propelled by individual jet packs. Musselman called two timeouts, just trying to keep his team close, but he didn’t really succeed. In the end, it didn’t matter. Spotted 22 points, the No. 2 seed couldn’t hold off a spirited mid-major. This tournament, man.

Cincinnati was on the cusp of restoring a bit of order to the proceedings. Now everything has gone ka-blooey. Kentucky, which was seen as among the nation’s most disappointing teams a month ago, heads to Atlanta as the favorite. It’s coming off an SEC tournament title, and it just beat Buffalo, which beat Arizona by 21, by 20. Your Sweet 16 pairings: The Big Blue against No. 9 Kansas State, which outlasted UMBC in an awful game, and Nevada against Loyola. Saw that coming, did you?

In this crazy-quilt region, being the favorite mightn’t be the best thing. Nothing in the South has gone to form. UMBC beat Virginia by 20. Arizona lost to Buffalo. Loyola has hit two buzzer-beaters and has Sister Jean on its side. And here comes Nevada, improbable in and of itself. Though Caleb Martin did express one postgame wish: “Can we not start from ahead just once?”

About the Author

Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley
Mark Bradley is a sports columnist and blogger for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. He has been with the AJC since 1984.