Sunday, March 18, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Friday a 'wow' day in sports history

OMAHA, Neb. -- "Wow."

I must have heard that word spoken in the stands behind me 30 times in the last four minutes of Friday's Norfolk State-Missouri game.

Chris McEachin hit a 3-pointer to put the Spartans up four. "Wow."

Kyle O'Quinn hit a stickback to break the final tie. "Wow."

Missouri's final 3-point attempt clanged off the rim, sealing the 86-84 upset. "Wow."

The fans weren't screaming this. It was more of a soft utterance, almost a whisper, a verbal attempt to reconcile each play that should not have been happening. And when I turned around and looked at those who were saying it, they weren't wearing Norfolk State or Missouri colors.

They were wearing Creighton blue and Nebraska red and Carolina blue - a menagerie of college basketball fans who felt lucky to have bought a ticket to watch two teams they don't normally support.

"Everybody likes to see the underdog survive," O'Quinn said. "Not only survive, but win. In the Virgin Islands, we went in with six fans, and we came out with the whole gym on our backs."

There the Spartans upset Drexel and TCU before losing by two points to Marquette. This, though? This was so much more.

Except for the sections of Missouri gold - filled with people who would be selling their tickets to today's Round of 32 game outside the arena later - this place was alive with folks alternating between pro-NSU chants and exclamations of "Wow."

Sometimes, one word really is enough.

Friday was a "Wow" day in sports history, with two No. 15 seeds beating No. 2s, a No. 13 defeating a No. 4 and a nation falling in love with this tournament all over again.

It was chaos here in Omaha, where O'Quinn joked about wrecking brackets - including his own.

It was shock a thousand miles away in Greensboro, N.C., where Coach K talked about the "terrible" lows of his profession after Duke fell to Lehigh.

It was exuberance in Nashville, Tenn., where Walter Offutt spoke of the "amazing journey" he and his Ohio teammates were on after upending Michigan.

The best part is that we all get to take that journey with them, meeting extraordinary people along the way.

O'Quinn might be the most amazing of the bunch. As good as Norfolk State's 6-foot-10 center was against Missouri- and his 26 points and 14 rebounds were plenty good -- he was even better in the postgame interview.

His story itself is incredible. O'Quinn barely played as a high school junior in New York, exploded as a senior and accepted the first -- and only -- scholarship offered to him when Norfolk State came calling.

His personality, though, is captivating. O'Quinn fielded every postgame question Friday with wide eyes and a smile. He thanked his buddy McEachin for shooting an airball with 36 seconds left, which allowed O'Quinn to deliver the critical three-point play. He talked about apologizing to the refs after getting a little too excited when a call didn't go Norfolk State's way.

And when asked, the junior talked about his future. Some think he might have an NBA shot.

"I don't know," he said. "Hope somebody picks me up, go pro, I don't know."

He smiled again.

"What my future is: Winning on Sunday, how about that?" he said. "Let's take small steps."

Today the Spartans face Florida, a team with talent much better than its No. 7 seeding would suggest. This is the one that could turn O'Quinn into a full-blown star and the Spartans into the bona fide darlings of this tournament.

Lehigh swiped Saturday morning's top spot on "SportsCenter" by beating the Blue Devils; Norfolk State was given the No. 2 billing.

But a victory over the Gators would snag Monday's USA Today headlines and put every member of the Spartans on the national talk radio circuit for the better part of a week.

There's only one word to describe that kind of experience. And we all know what it is.

Weather Journal

News tips, photos and feedback?
Sign up for free daily news by email