Omaha, Neb. In the bowels of the CenturyLink Center, separated by barely 20 paces and a thin wall of cinder block, the agony and ecstasy of March Madness was unfolding in all its vivid, joyful and cruel excess.
Inside the walls of the Norfolk State Spartans locker room, Cinderella was inviting everyone into their little party. The No. 15 seed of the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference had just turned the NCAA Tournament on its head with the biggest upset of the day so far — an inexplicable, indescribable, wildly entertaining and thoroughly heartbreaking 86-84 victory over No. 2 seed Mizzou in the West Regional second round. And now Norfolk State director of athletics Marty Miller stood in the narrow hallway leading into the locker room ushering the largest flow of national media they’d ever seen into the room.
“Yes, yes, please come on in,” said Miller, grinning like a Cheshire cat. “Come on in. We’re glad to have you. Bet you didn’t think you’d be coming in here, huh?”
And there was junior guard Quasim Pugh, standing in the middle of the room shouting at the top of his lungs. “This one sure messed up a lot of folks brackets,” Pugh said, cackling. “Ruined the president’s. Ruined everybody’s. Heck, it even ruined mine.”
Oh, yes, this is what makes March Madness so devine.
And now here is what makes it so painful: The stroll from the winners on Cloud Nine to the losers.
Inside the morgue-quiet Mizzou locker room, the only noise you heard above a whisper was when the media hordes had finally cleared away from Kim English’s locker stall, and the senior guard grimly walked into the adjoining bathroom, went into the toilet stall and slammed the door in exasperation.
The noise echoed into every corner of the Mizzou locker room, and it spoke as loudly as any of the words English or any of his teammates tried to offer up to describe what it felt like for this magical season to come to such a shocking and abrupt end.
How are we supposed to look back on this Missouri season now and put it in its proper historical context? Do we remember it as some sort of miracle we never saw coming? Do we remember it because no one could have imagined that Frank Haith could have come here and in his first season guide the Tigers to 30 victories in 35 games? Do we remember it for the way the Tigers went into Kansas City last weekend and played rude house guests in their final Big 12 tournament, chanting “S-E-C!” as they won the tourney title?
Or do we remember the Tigers for this shocking end, losing to a 15th seed that no one knew anything about?