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Wednesday, March 14, 2007

How to pull an epic upset

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— The scene lives in NCAA Tournament lore, to be replayed ad nauseum over the next few days by the folks at CBS.

There's then-Hampton coach Steve Merfeld, in the arms of forward David Johnson, raising his arms and kicking his legs after his team's 63-61 victory over No. 2 seed Iowa State at the 2001 West Regional.

Upsets like that night's in Boise, Idaho - when the decided underdog fells the overwhelming favorite - put the madness in March and lure fans to the tourney like no other United States sporting event can. And the memories of them stay with everyone involved.

"The greatest feeling ever," said Marseilles Brown, a guard on that Hampton squad. "Getting to the tournament is the goal. Winning a game, it's beyond anything you can imagine."

Brown knows the feeling well. Three years before he assisted on Hampton's game-winning basket, he helped No. 14 seed Richmond bounce No. 3 seed South Carolina from the 1998 tournament's first round.

And Ron Abegglen, the old coach at Weber State, can relate as well. He led the Wildcats past Michigan State in the 1995 tournament and North Carolina in the 1999 tournament, providing two national highlights for the school in Ogden, Utah. Each time, Weber State entered as a No. 14 seed.

"The key thing is convincing them (the players) can do it," Abegglen said. "Once you get them believing, and hanging in there, you've got a chance."

The belief part starts on "Selection Sunday," both said, when the first-round matchup is revealed and coaches can begin breaking down game tape.

Abegglen remembers his Wildcats being giddy about the chance to play the Tar Heels, a perennial power they had seen on TV. Meanwhile, friends in coaching told him it took Bill Guthridge's North Carolina staff three days to track down significant footage of the Wildcats.

Satellites and the Internet take away that advantage. But another, the three-point shot, remains, and has served as an underdog's biggest ally. Brown said then-Spiders coach John Beilein, now at West Virginia, built Richmond's entire South Carolina game plan around taking and making three-pointers.

"I shot the ball really, really well that game," he said. "If you don't make threes and take care of the ball, it's going to be a long day for you."

Leading at halftime isn't a requirement, but staying in the game early seems mandatory. Even a team with double-digit comeback victories on its resume can't afford to fall behind by a bunch of points.

Next comes the most crucial part of any upset - the first few sequences of the second half. It's perfect counter-punch time for the favorites.

Iowa State's push sank Hampton into an 11-point hole midway through the second half. That's when the Pirates' defense bailed them out, forcing turnovers that slowed a Cyclones attack.

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