Remembering the close calls and villains of New England NCAA lore

Rhode Island, Boston College, UMass, Holy Cross and more have all let big wins slip away.

Harvard North Carolina 2015
The Harvard bench watches the final seconds of their 67-65 loss to North Carolina on March 19, 2015. –AP Photo

New England’s March Madness didn’t last even seven hours. All three of the region’s NCAA Tournament teams drew games in the first half of Thursday’s play, and none survived the assignment.

America East champions Vermont hit 16 3-pointers and led with 11 minutes to go in Hartford, but were finally overrun by a much larger Florida State team, albeit not to the degree bettors would’ve liked. Ivy League champions Yale hit four 3-pointers in 33 seconds to get within 3 points of LSU in the waning moments at Jacksonville, but the East’s No. 3 survived. Northeastern faced a double-digit halftime deficit like the Bulldogs, but then surrendered 50 points to Kansas in the second half and went very quietly.

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It was a long way from the last Huskies visit to the Big Dance in 2015, when they had the ball in their hands down 2 inside the final 30 seconds against ACC champions Notre Dame. Alas, the No. 14 seed turned the ball over without a shot, their chance at glory fading to simply what might have been.

They are not alone in that. With all the local rooting interests done for the year (outside of Harvard in the NIT), let’s remember some of the hard-to-stomach, impossible-to-forget near upsets in big-time New England basketball history.

2015: North Carolina 67, Harvard 65

In 2013, Tommy Amaker’s Crimson beat New Mexico as a No. 14 seed. In 2014, they beat Cincinnati as a No. 12. So when the Ivy League champs took a 65-63 lead — their first lead of the game — with a Siyani Chambers 4-point play with 1:15 to go against the Tar Heels, the basketball world was abuzz. The kids from Cambridge were about to do it again.

The No. 4 seeds in the West, however, would not be denied. Specifically, future first-round pick Justin Jackson. Jackson hit a jumper to tie it inside the final minute, then — after Chambers had to force a long 3 attempt late in the shot clock — jammed home the winning bucket on the counterattack.

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The Crimson got two more shots at it, but went for the win and North Carolina survived, ultimately making the Sweet 16.

“It’s the luckiest I’ve ever felt after a basketball game in my entire life,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams told reporters. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery because Tommy Amaker did a much better job with his team than I did with mine. We were extremely lucky.”

2014: North Carolina 79, Providence 77

Just hours after Duke was sent home by unheralded Mercer, Bryce Cotton nearly sent their Tobacco Road rivals out alongside them with the 11th-seeded Friars. Making their first tournament appearance in a decade, with Cotton averaging more than 40 minutes per game because the Friars played six overtime games, the Big East champions got 36 points from their senior in his final college game, the final two on a layup to make it 77-74 with 1:21 to play.

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The Friars trailed by 3 points at the half and by 9 before an 11-0 run with about nine minutes to go made it a white-knuckle finish. One that, as above, North Carolina survived. Providence only got one shot in the final 81 seconds, a missed layup, and the No. 6 Tar Heels got three offensive rebounds and hit enough foul shots to survive.

“I’ve been saying the whole year I think Bryce is one of the top guards in all of America,” coach Ed Cooley said of Cotton, who played just 23 NBA games and now plays in Australia. “I think today if there is somebody in this national tournament that does that, they would be considered Superman.”

2006 Sweet 16: Villanova 60, Boston College 59 (OT)

The Eagles have just two winning seasons in their last 10, but it’s easy to forget they were 28-8 in their first year as a member of the Atlantic Coast Conference and came within a whisker of the Elite 8. It’s a lot harder for longtime Superfans, however, to let go of how close they came.

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Al Skinner’s team needed two overtimes to win in the first round, but the No. 4 seed in the Minneapolis regional had the No. 1 Wildcats on the ropes in the Sweet 16, up 25-9 in the first half and not falling behind until 2:18 remained in regulation. Randy Foye, however, scored his team’s final six points of the second half, with a Jared Dudley 3 with 28 seconds left getting BC to overtime.

Foye scored the final 5 of his 29 points in the extra session, but Dudley and Craig Smith still had BC — which committed 21 turnovers — in front 59-58 with 3.5 seconds to go. That’s when Will Sheridan slipped free on an inbound play under the BC basket; a goaltending call on his layup gave Villanova the lead, and a desperation 3 fell shy.

“I mean, you can’t really explain it,” Smith told reporters. “It is pretty tough…Not much you can say.”

2002: Kansas 70, Holy Cross 59

For a brief period at the turn of the century, the sight of kids from the Patriot League in purple uniforms jumping around in the second half of a tournament game was an annual occurrence. In 2001, the 15th-seeded Crusaders ripped off a 14-4 run midway through the second half to tie Kentucky, but couldn’t stop Tayshaun Price and lost by 4. In 2003, the 14 seeds were within two in the final minute against Dwyane Wade’s Marquette, but 10 missed free throws ultimately did them in in another 4-point loss.

We’ll single out the middle of that sandwich, if only because in 2002, a No. 16 beating a No. 1 seed still seemed an impossibility. And playing in St. Louis that day, the Crusaders led the Jayhawks by 2 at the half, by 5 with 16 minutes to play, and trailed by a single point with six minutes to go before Drew Gooden’s team — which went to make the Final Four — finally shed the pests.

The classic case where the final score didn’t represent the game it came from.

1998 Elite 8: Stanford 79, Rhode Island 77

It was the greatest team in Rams history, the first of two from which coach Jim Harrick returned himself to the high-level ranks after a recruiting scandal at UCLA. It featured two future NBA players, Cuttino Mobley and Tyson Wheeler. And if it ended with a minute to go in the Elite 8 of the NCAA tournament in St. Louis, there would be nothing but warm thoughts about it.

Alas, that would be weird. As weird as a 71-65 lead for the Rams with 59 seconds to play evaporating and undoing so much of the magic.

Arthur Lee never played so much as a minute in the NBA, but he scored 8 points in those final 59 seconds in St. Louis, and 13 of Stanford’s final 17 points, to put the Cardinal in their lone Final Four of the last 75 years. It came at the expense of the Rams, who came unglued in every way possible on the biggest stage they’ve ever seen.

Lee 3-pointer, leaning. Rhody makes 1-of-2 free throws. Lee goes full-court and passes to Mark Madsen for a layup. Rhody makes two free throws. Lee goes full-court again and spins a 3-point play on a layup. One-point game. Lee steals the ball from Mobley, who dishes to Madsen for a 3-point play of his own. In 30 seconds, 71-65 became 74-76.

Rhody turnover. Intentional foul and it’s a 3-point Stanford lead. Rhody catches a huge break, with Wheeler fouled shooting a 3 with five seconds to go, but he shortarmed the first two and knocked the rebound out of bounds after he intentionally missed the third.

Mobley fumed afterward about an uncalled foul on the steal. Whether he was right or wrong, Rhody scored one field goal in the last 6:52. Two decades later, that’s what’s remembered.

1992 Sweet 16: Kentucky 87, UMass 77

It’s instantly memorable and arguably the greatest game in college basketball history: Duke 104, Kentucky 103, Elite 8 at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Christian Laettner’s literal perfect game ending with The Shot.

It’s less memorable how close it came to not happening, because John Calipari’s first of five straight NCAA Tournament teams came within a whisker of beating the Wildcats, who’d run them over by 21 in December. The Minutemen went 25-3 from that night, including 14 straight wins leading into their first Sweet 16 appearance. The No. 3 seeds in the East played like it was their first against Jamal Mashburn’s Wildcats, down 37-16 early before they began to climb back.

A 70-footer from senior Jim McCoy made it an 8-point deficit at the half. The Minutemen closed to within 2, slipped back down 6, then got within 70-68 with 6:15 to go when referee Lenny Wirtz became an infamous name in Amherst. [Play is at 1:21:38 in the video.]

“Kentucky’s Sean Woods had just grabbed a long offensive rebound over the back of [UMass’s Anton] Brown. Calipari gave an over-the-top motion. Big deal. Wirtz, standing 45 feet away, slapped Calipari for a T,” wrote Bob Ryan in the Globe. “The only possible rationale (there is no way he could have heard anything) was that Calipari was out of the coaching box. Who cares? Lenny Wirtz, that’s who.”

The two technical free throws and a layup on Kentucky’s next possession made their lead 6 again, and UMass never got closer.

“The officials did not win or lose the game for us. That’s like one call out of many,” Calipari diplomatically told reporters afterward. “The official had his job to do, and I have my job to do. If I step out of the box, he can call a technical.”

The Minutemen would grow to a national power, reaching No. 1 and the Final Four before fading away amid scandal in the mid-90s. Wirtz, however, remains a dirty word for plenty in maroon.