Fairleigh Dickinson, Princeton, Furman and the Joy of March Upsets
“This is one of the few things in life where they told me how good it was and, somehow, it’s better.”
SACRAMENTO — At its best, March isn’t about madness so much as pure, unbridled joy.
It stirs with the highly anticipated first peek at the men’s and women’s N.C.A.A. tournament brackets, then crescendoes with the unexpected emergence of giant-killers — this year, Fairleigh Dickinson, Princeton and Furman slaying the men’s powerhouses Purdue, Arizona and Virginia. Once again, underdog-induced chaos wins the day.
For those who both play and love college basketball, March becomes one long blur of adrenaline, punctuated by exuberant nights and fitful sleeps.
When Fairleigh Dickinson knocked out Purdue on Friday night, 63-58, it was only the second time in the history of the men’s tournament that a No. 16 seed ousted a No. 1. Suddenly, the other No. 16 seed to pull the rug out — the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, which beat Virginia in 2018 — had company. It was the third stunning tournament development in roughly 24 hours.
If F.D.U. played Purdue 100 times, the Boilermakers would “probably beat us 99 times,” Coach Tobin Anderson said. “Play them 100 times, we have one win. But tonight’s the one.”
For the sport and its devotees, those single nights can last a lifetime.
“This is one of the few things in life where they told me how good it was and, somehow, it’s better,” Furman Coach Bob Richey told Fox radio shortly after his team kick-started the round of 64 on Thursday. Furman pulled off an exhilarating triumph, 68-67, over fourth-seeded Virginia on JP Pegues’s late 3-pointer.
It was 13th-seeded Furman’s first N.C.A.A. tournament appearance since 1980, which helps explain why Richey, the school’s coach since 2017, had all the stories but none of the firsthand knowledge of what the experience would be like.
Just a few hours later, with the final seconds ticking away of another classic that will be indelibly stamped into long-term memories, Tosan Evbuomwan leaped, snared the basketball and protected it with the zeal of a security guard as No. 15 seed Princeton stunned second-seeded Arizona, 59-55. On Friday night, the No. 10 seed Princeton women delivered an encore by taking down No. 7 seed North Carolina State, on a game-winning 3-pointer by Grace Stone with 4.7 seconds left.
March leads the nation in impromptu group gatherings in front of television screens, with so many people hanging on to so many pressurized moments for different reasons. Some are alumni transfixed by love for their universities. Others are simply reeled in by the drama, authored by schools they’ve barely heard of with mysterious nicknames that need examining later.
Look up “Paladin” and you will find that the Furman basketball team carries a sobriquet defined by the American Heritage College Dictionary as “any of the 12 peers of French emperor Charlemagne’s court” in the 8th century. Or, in layman’s terms, a fanciful term for a knight (like one from Fairleigh Dickinson).
Nickname knowledge, atmospheres and arena sizes all swell this time of year. Pegues said the gathering for the Virginia game in Orlando, Fla., was “the biggest crowd we’ve ever played” in front of. In Columbus, Ohio, fans of Florida Atlantic and Memphis, ahead of their own zany finish on Friday night, fell quickly for Fairleigh Dickinson as it became clear that its showing against Purdue could be more than just a good sweat. Similarly in Sacramento, support for the Princeton men grew as it pushed against Arizona.
All three underdogs sharpened their focus and displayed the mental acuity that the most stressful of life’s moments require as a pathway to success.
“Coach told us it’s a nameless, faceless opponent,” said Jalen Slawson, a fifth-year forward at Furman who was named as the Southern Conference Player of the Year. “Every night Furman tries to play to Furman’s standard. And we know when we do that offensively and defensively, we can play with anybody in the country.”
Richey instructed his players to “absorb” that, said Slawson, who added that the team “did a lot of absorption yesterday” after the coach allowed “three minutes to get your nerves out when the game starts.”
Time is both fleeting and fragile in this month. “Survive and advance,” was a fond saying of the late Jim Valvano, who famously coached North Carolina State to one of the greatest championship game upsets in history when the Wolfpack defeated the Phi Slamma Jamma Houston Cougars in 1983.
For those who lose? The end is unbearably sudden. In its pre-tournament briefing, Princeton heard what everyone else was told: If you lose to Arizona on Thursday afternoon, hustle back to your hotel, pack fast, get to the airport, and you’ll fly home that night.
The message was clear: This is not a leisurely class field trip. Teams are moved in and moved out. The merry-go-round keeps spinning.
The Tigers earned the right to savor their time on Thursday before turning to preparation for their next opponent, Missouri on Saturday. The coaching staff and team enjoyed a special dinner, steaks at The Firehouse Restaurant, and were appropriately greeted by the restaurant crew upon arrival.
Undoubtedly, it was a night the Tigers and their loved ones will remember forever, just as their 1996 predecessors will never forget the sights and sounds of eliminating U.C.L.A. Coach Mitch Henderson, now the only person at Princeton to win an N.C.A.A. tournament game as both a player and a coach, is in a special position to understand both the historical implications along with the immediate emotions. It is why he quickly moved to place this year’s accomplishment into a singular category.
“I’ve been the beneficiary of that game, along with my teammates, for a long time,” Henderson, who scored 8 points in that long ago 43-41 win over U.C.L.A., said Thursday afternoon. “But I’m the coach here. My charge, and I’m very present about this, is I want that for them. That’s very, very simple. They did that today. They made so many people proud and happy today. They deserve it.”
He declared that the enormous upset “feels a million times better as a coach.”
Slawson noted that Furman’s triumph over Virginia was only the second N.C.A.A. men's tournament victory in school history, following a 1974 win over South Carolina.
“This team has done a great job making history all year,” Slawson said, and while the games become increasingly difficult each step of the way, programs of all shapes and sizes share one commonality in March: to reach for the stars.
The goal for everyone is to hold on to these moments as long as possible, before the world turns over, the dream expires, and it’s time to pick up and start all over again, same as in so many other aspects of life. The honor is in the persistence.
March’s emotions now strumming the rhythm of their lives, five Princeton men’s players are working on their senior thesis. From Ryan Langborg (“The Effects of N.B.A. Travel on Sleep”) to Evbuomwan (“Diversity in Executive Management in the N.B.A. and How It Affects Team Performance”), the papers are due in two weeks.
“There’s no extensions,” Henderson said, smiling. “They’ve got to get to work.”
Survive and advance, indeed.