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Conference tournament recap: Arch madness lives up to the name, title games set and more

What a day.

NCAA Basketball: Drake at Dayton David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Like stepping outside for that first thrillingly mild day of Spring, Friday had “that feel” to it. The madness was in the air with pressure-packed semifinals around the country and some top seeds falling.

Here’s where we stand heading into the first March Saturday of elimination games.

Missouri Valley Quarterfinals

#8 Drake 77, #1 Northern Iowa 56
#4 Bradley 64, #5 Southern Illinois 59
#7 Valparaiso 74, #2 Loyola Chicago 73
#6 Missouri State 78, #3 Indiana State 51

What a day in the Valley.

Arch Madness did not disappoint with multiple games coming down to the wire, as well as some resounding upsets. There’s a reshuffled deck at the Enterprise Center heading into semifinal Saturday. That’s primarily the case because Drake dumped regular season champion UNI out of the tournament by dominating the opening large swaths of its quarterfinal with the Panthers.

Sophomore point guard Roman Penn led the way (26 points, 8 points, 8 assists), and was especially vital helping the Bulldogs recover from a punch Austin Phyfe and the Panthers had thrown to get back in the game shortly after halftime. After losing to UNI by 27 points just six days before, Drake frustrated AJ Green — especially early — and the Panthers into their third-worst offensive day at the office, at least in terms of efficiency.

The bigger story? UNI’s NCAA tournament chances are now in serious doubt.

Elsewhere, Bradley and Southern Illinois staged a stingy, back-and-forth game that saw four ties over the final 3:46. After some icy veins by the Salukis at the free throw line deep in the game, JaShon Henry broke the final with a three-point play with 19 seconds left to put the Braves up 62-59, and then Darrell Brown (19 points, 8 assists) sealed the win with a pair of free throws. Bradley’s quest to win back-to-back Arch Madness titles lives on.

The most exciting 40 minutes, however, belonged to Valparaiso and Loyola Chicago. The Crusaders further muddied the waters by dumping the No. 2 seed Ramblers, but had to come back from a 14-point halftime deficit to make the game competitive in the second half. They trailed by six points with 28 seconds left in regulation before John Kiser drilled a three, and after two missed free throws by Ramblers’ forward Aher Uguak, Ryan Fazekas injected the first dose of drama into the game:

An overtime full of sputtering offensive possessions and missed layups on both sides saw Ramblers’ star center Cameron Krutwig tie the game at 72 with 13 seconds left. Then, Kiser and Eron Gordon injected the second, and determinative, piece of drama into the game to send the Crusaders into the semifinals:

In the nightcap, Missouri State extinguished the third seed by walloping Indiana State by 27 points. The Bears are a talented team that we were enamored with in the preseason, putting them into our initial Other Top 25. They largely failed to live up to expectations but had been playing better of late in an inconsistent season, going 4-2 since Feb. 12. Gaige Prim (17 points, 8 rebounds) is a load in the post, and senior Ross Owens brings his own unique story to the semifinals. The walk on wing was suddenly plopped into the rotation in early February, which has, coincidence or not, coincided with some better play.

Mountain West Semifinals

#1 San Diego State 81, #5 Boise State 68
#2 Utah State 89, #11 Wyoming 82

Ten-gallons off to you, Pokes.

Wyoming’s thrilling MWC Tournament run came to close after a semi-tight game with Utah State. The Cowboys kept the dream alive trailing by only seven at halftime, but after some ebbs and flows, never could overcome that separation, ultimately being done in by the Aggies’ star duo of Sam Merrill (27 points) and Neemias Queta (21 points). Still, Allen Edwards’ squad gave us our first dose of March excitement and for that we are thankful as they ride into the sunset.

For the Aggies — who seemingly have locked up an NCAA Tournament bid — it’s worth watching Abel Porter’s health status. The starting guard exited the Wyoming game after just five minutes with an apparent injury.

On the other side, the Aztecs sure like to make it interesting. After trailing Air Force at halftime of their quarterfinal game, things looked a bit more dire — at least early — for a team with (maybe) a No. 1 seed hanging in the balance. With roughly five minutes left in the first half, the Broncos had jumped out to a 16-point lead. But, like they did against the Falcons, the Aztecs stabilized. Malachi Flynn (21 points) and KJ Feagin (22 points) led the charge as SDSU pulled even at 40-40 at the break, and shut the door on the upset bid on the Broncos in the second half.

So what’s the narrative? Is SDSU beatable and that vulnerability has shown itself in spurts during its first two games? Or, are the Aztecs are a rock solid team that can overcome adversity, making them even more dangerous in two weeks?

We shall see (you didn’t really expect that answer from this here blog, did you?). In the end, it wasn’t always vanilla, but we got the final we expected.

Ohio Valley Semifinals

#1 Belmont 60, #4 Eastern Kentucky 60
#2 Murray State 73, #3 Austin Peay 61

Rematch, anyone?

It may lack the glitz and starpower of last year, but the OVC’s two premier programs, at least as of late, will meet in the final for the second-straight year. Murray State got there by knocking out Austin Peay, and had to rebound from a slow start to do it. Big efforts off the bench from KJ Williams and Chico Carter helped set the date with Belmont, with whom the Racers split their regular season series. Tevin Brown, however, was the star, with 24 points and eye-popping plays like the below:

The Bruins advanced despite a rough shooting night (33.8%), and were able to beat the Colonels for the third time this season. Belmont has now won 11-straight games after a late January, understandable wobble that saw back-to-back losses at Murray State and Austin Peay.

Big South Semifinals

#2 Winthrop 78, #3 Gardner-Webb 66
#5, Hampton 86, #1 Radford 78

The biggest show in the Big South is coming to Rock Hill. Winthrop’s comprehensive win against Gardner-Webb, paired with Hampton downing top-seeded Radford, means that the Eagles will host the league tournament championship game on Sunday.

Winthrop was paced by Hunter Hale (28 points, 12-13 FT, 7 rebounds), who has now scored 20 or more points in three consecutive games. The graduate transfer has walked one of the most interesting routes in college basketball, having played at Central Michigan way back in the 2015-16 season, before a redshirt year and two seasons at Div. II Grand Valley State. He’ll have the chance to put the Eagles into the NCAA Tournament against a Hampton team looking to make its own history.

The Pirates have reached the title game in just their second year in the Big South. Led by bucket-getter Jermaine Marrow (36 points), Hampton had four players log 40 minutes while its paper-thin rotation stunned No. 1 seed Radford on its home floor.

WCC Second Round

#5 San Francisco 82, #8 Loyola Marymount 53
$6 Pepperdine 84, #7 Santa Clara 73

Day two in the WCC took flight, with the big boys still waiting far in the wings.

Six days after scrounging a two-point win in LA, the Dons blew the Lions out of the water. Despite struggling from deep, USF flashed the type of offense that has been missing much of league play. With four players in double figures, the Dons made nearly 70 percent of their two-point shots in turning the evening’s first game into a laugher. If a talented USF team is going to make a run, this was quite the spring board.

A double digit win despite an off night from Colbey Ross? The Waves will surely take that as they dispatched Santa Clara behind 21 points from Kameron Edwards. They move on to face Saint Mary’s, which can ill afford a loss.