CLEVELAND, March 17 -- The game had just finished when University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee players walked across the court, pumped a fist or two, saluted their gold-and-black-clad fans and said, "Yeah, Milwaukee," in a tone that barely resembled a shout.
And that was it. This was not the celebration one might expect from a program that had earned its first NCAA tournament victory by upsetting favorite Alabama, 83-73, in the first round of the Chicago Region at Wolstein Center.
Alabama head coach Mark Gottfried watches with despair as his team loses to Wisconsin-Milwaukee.
(Mark Duncan - AP)
The NCAA tournament had barely begun Thursday afternoon when the Panthers delivered what has become an annual rite of March: a No. 12 seed toppling a No. 5 seed.
"It might have been a surprise to y'all," Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Joah Tucker said. "But it wasn't a surprise to us."
The victory helped set up an intriguing second-round matchup Saturday, when the Panthers (25-5) meet Coach Bruce Pearl's alma mater, fourth-seeded Boston College. The win also atoned, at least somewhat, for Wisconsin-Milwaukee's near miss in the NCAA tournament two years ago, when the Panthers came within a layup of beating Notre Dame.
When asked about the magnitude of Thursday's win, Pearl, who has won 20 or more games in three of his four seasons at the school, said, "It's no time to reflect right now." Choked with emotion, Pearl then added how grateful he is to Wisconsin-Milwaukee and said: "This is my life's work. This is my passion."
It was such an impressive performance that the seeds could have been reversed and few would have protested. The Panthers dominated an Alabama team that returned the bulk of its players from the squad that reached the round of eight last season before losing to eventual national champion U-Conn.
Thursday's game could be summarized as follows: Alabama had nine dunks; Wisconsin-Milwaukee had 12 three-pointers, including 10 in the first half. Three is greater than two, and Alabama seemed to fall further behind even though it continued to score.
Alabama (24-8) made 54.5 percent of its shots in the first half, but the Crimson Tide trailed by 13 at halftime. Ten of the Panthers' 14 first-half field goals were three-pointers, most of which came on open looks. Said Alabama's Chuck Davis, "The defense lost it for us."
Wisconsin-Milwaukee's Ed McCants, the Horizon League player of the year, picked up two fouls in the game's first seven minutes, but it hardly mattered. The Panthers sank eight three-pointers in the first 11 minutes to take a 17-point lead.
"That's the game, the whole game," Alabama Coach Mark Gottfried said.
The Panthers made a concerted effort to succeed on the perimeter because Pearl's scouting report revealed that Alabama suffered at least six of its losses when it shot poorly from the perimeter and the opponent thrived from outside.
What's more, Wisconsin-Milwaukee lacks a potent inside force; Tucker, who scored 15 of his 21 points in the second half, is only 6 feet 5. "We felt the closer we got the ball to the basket," Pearl said, "the more Alabama's defense was going to be formidable."
The most relevant question entering the game was whether Alabama freshman point guard Ronald Steele, who had been a sterling addition all season, could handle the Panthers' pressure defense. Wisconsin-Milwaukee had forced 20 or more turnovers 10 times this season.
But Pearl knew his team could not pressure Alabama's athletes for 94 feet over 40 minutes. So he said he blended pressure with patience. The Panthers forced 19 turnovers and were rarely not in control, stifling Alabama's long forwards with tight man-to-man defense.
It didn't take long for Alabama to rally in the second half. The Crimson Tide scored eight points in the first two minutes, capped by Earnest Shelton's long three-pointer, to pull within five points. But Alabama, appearing in its fourth straight NCAA tournament, could get no closer.
"Not to sound cocky by any means," Panthers forward Adrian Tigert said, "but we came in expecting to win. We're not satisfied."
BOSTON COLLEGE 85, PENN 65: The Eagles didn't look like a team that had gone 4-4 in its last eight games. Boston College built a 20-point halftime lead and held on over the 13th-seeded Quakers.
The fourth-seeded Eagles (25-4) played an efficient first half. They made 62.1 percent of their shots, had 16 assists on 18 baskets and made 7 of 10 three-point shots even though outside shooting is not Boston College's forte.
Jared Dudley's 18 points led five Eagles in double figures. Fellow forward Craig Smith added 15 points and 13 rebounds. Penn (20-9) closed to within nine points in the second half before fading.