Column: 16-seeds more confident after one of their peers pulled it off

Think back to when you were growing up and faced the daunting task of doing something new, scary and daring.

If you’re like me, you may have been more likely to feel comfortable enough to go for it if you saw one of your peers finish the task first — whether it was riding a bicycle without training wheels, diving into the deep end of the pool or riding on the zip line at summer camp.

For 16th-seeded Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona as they entered the 2019 NCAA Tournament, last year’s UMBC team may very well have been that peer.

Fifty-two weeks ago the Retrievers shocked the world by becoming the first No. 16 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the tournament’s first round when they beat Virginia 74-54, a feat previously thought by some to be impossible.

While none of this year’s 16-seeds were able to repeat the feat, Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played their top-seeded opponent extremely well for the first half of their games against Virginia, Duke and North Carolina and avoided being thought of as just an also-ran when fans and pundits recapped the first round outcomes. (Sorry, Fairleigh Dickinson, this column isn’t about you.)

Sure, the Cavaliers, Blue Devils and Tar Heels posted dominant second halves to win and advance (Virginia beat Gardner-Webb 73-58; Duke topped North Dakota State 85-62; North Carolina defeated Iona 88-73). It should be expected that this would happen in these games considering the talent gap between these No. 1 seeds — by definition the best teams in the country — and their 16th-seeded counterparts. The ability of great coaches to make halftime adjustments — and UVA’s Tony Bennett, Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and UNC’s Roy Williams all fit that description — is also a factor in the games turning back towards the favorites, even after two of these three No. 1 seeds trailed at halftime and the other was up by just four points.

But as Gardner-Webb, North Dakota State and Iona each played on Friday there was a sense that the teams had a new sense of confidence never seen before in 16-seeds, knowing now that beating a No. 1 seed was not just something that hypothetically could happen, but something that has happened.

(Photo: Gardner-Webb Athletics)

It started in mid-afternoon as Gardner-Webb held a 28-14 lead on Virginia — the very team that lost to UMBC last year in the tournament’s ultimate upset — before the Runnin’ Bulldogs led 36-30 at halftime. Surely thoughts of last year’s game and all the noise surrounding it since had to creep into the heads of the Cavaliers, though Bennett’s club responded with their typical stanch defense, holding Gardner-Webb to 20 second-half points.

North Dakota State led 12-5 early and was tied with Duke as late as the 2:13 mark of the first half before trailing 31-27 at the break. Duke — the No. 1 overall seed and the tournament’s largest betting favorite in four years — used a 33-10 run to start the second half and put the game out of the Bison’s reach, scoring 54 second-half points en route to the second round.

Iona hit 10 threes in the first half to take a 38-33 halftime lead over North Carolina. The Tar Heels outrebounded the Gaels 52-26 for the game and Iona made just five of 20 threes in the second half, instigating a 30-9 UNC run that allowed them to cruise to the win.

While each of these three No. 16 seeds lost in the end, they all have nothing to hang their heads about and can be proud of the way they competed. Each of them took their best shot at an excellent opponent and provided them with a stiff first-round test — something that has often not been the case in past 1-vs-16 matchups, as the average margin of victory by 1-seeds over 16-seeds since 2015 is 26.8 points, with nearly half those games decided by 30-plus points.

While any reasonable pundit won’t expect 16-seed-over-1-seed upsets to become a normal occurrence, this year’s crop of three compelling games and three legitimate upset attempts could be a sign that the days of pushover 16-seeds may be history.

Because while facing a No. 1 seed is a daunting and scary task, they’ve now seen one of their peers finish the job.

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