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NCAA underdogs: They came, saw and got waxed Their Best Shot

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Continental flight 1624 has just landed at BWI and down Concourse B comes the North Carolina A&T; University men's basketball team, happy to be here at the Big Dance and fully aware that it's supposed to be, for lack of a better term, dead meat.

A little over 24 hours from now on this hazy Wednesday morning, the 16th-seeded Aggies will play top-seeded Wake Forest in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional tournament at the Baltimore Arena. And the Aggies will get crushed. The final score will be 79-47, Wake. The last 20 minutes will be so ugly, you want to cover your eyes and peek out through your fingers, the way you would at a bad car accident.

Each March, college basketball gives us a story line like this, four homely teams like Carolina A&T;, one in each regional, which have little or no shot to beat their opponents. Consider this: Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed. Never, ever.

The oddsmakers in Vegas had this one figured from the get-go: Wake was a 23-point favorite. And with good reason. The Aggies arrived in Baltimore with a mediocre 15-14 record, winners of the humble Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a thrilling win over Coppin State in the tourney finals. Wake finished 24-5 and won the championship of the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.

Of the Aggies vs. the Demon Deacons, you could say it was the classic David-and-Goliath story. But if you said that, you'd be dead wrong.

Check the box scores from back then: David won. David was the plucky underdog, but he got in a lucky shot and killed the Philistine giant Goliath. It was in all the papers.

Maybe this is a better analogy for the Aggies: In 480 B.C., King Xerxes I of Persia invaded Greece with a huge army. Leonidas, king of Greece, took 300 Spartans and went up against the Persians in a small mountain pass near Thermopylae. Maybe you saw the movie. Anyway, Leonidas and the Spartans were all killed.

They were noble and brave and yadda-yadda-yadda, but they ended up dead just the same.

Of course, here in Concourse B on this late winter morning, there is no talk of death or its modern-day equivalent, losing. The Aggies' first-year coach, Roy Thomas, appears relaxed and confident. And, as the players in their navy blue and gold warm-ups head to the baggage carousel, they joke softly among themselves and tell a passing skycap that it's the Deacs who are about to fall.

"Everyone recognizes the position we're in playing Wake," says sports information director Charles Mooney. "They're No. 3 in the whole country. We're No. 976 or whatever. But an upset's possible."

"We're not coming here just for a vacation," Roy Thomas says later. "I brought three suits up here just like [Wake coach] Dave Odom did. We're not here to shake hands and go home.

"Sure, we know we're outmanned. I'm not stupid. We know we have to play a perfect game to win. But I know 240 other schools that would like to have my problem now."

This, then, is the story of North Carolina A&T;'s visit to Baltimore, which is a host of the NCAA Tournament for the first time. It's a story of courage. It's a story of determination. But mostly it's a quick story.

Because in the end, the Aggies got clobbered, just like everyone said they would.

And today they'll be heading back home and so will the 350-plus loyal fans who made the trip up here to cheer them on, hoping Charm City would turn out to be some sort of basketball Lourdes.

Sometimes you go up against a superior foe and get lucky, the way David did. More often than not, you end up stretched out in that mountain pass.

L But that diminishes the nobility of your effort not one bit.

Nine times zero

North Carolina A&T; is a historically black urban university of 8,000 students in Greensboro. It was nuts down there recently.

This was the Aggies' ninth visit to the Big Dance -- unfortunately, they are now 0-9 at this baby and need to learn a few new steps. But all week long on campus, there were marching bands and pep rallies and stirring speeches by faculty members to fire up the team.

Maybe one story best illustrates the atmosphere: It's last Sunday. Roy Thomas is sitting at his kitchen table filling out travel vouchers. The phone rings. This would be no big deal, except it's 11:30 at night, so the coach naturally wonders what psycho is calling at this hour.

The psycho turns out to be Dr. Edward B. Fort, who isn't really a psycho, although he is the school's chancellor.

"He was just calling to wish us good luck," Mr. Thomas is explaining now. "He said: 'Anything can happen. Go up there and play. I know you'll make the school proud.' "

Mr. Thomas smiles. "Can you imagine the chancellor of any other school doing that at that hour?"

This is Wednesday afternoon at the arena. As technicians set up phone lines for the national media and a couple hundred fans filter in to watch, lured by the free admission, the Aggies run through their final practice for the Wake game. They look sharp in spots, ragged in others, a bit adrenalized.

They don't look like dead men, though, which is good.

Up in the stands, a man with dark sunglasses and the bluest North Carolina A&T; sweat shirt you ever saw watches intently. This is Thel Moore, a friendly man with an easy laugh. He runs an income tax service in Woodlawn, but 40 years ago, he was a big deal on the A&T; campus, a track star from 1954-1957.

Mr. Moore has followed this team intently -- he's a member of the 200-member-strong A&T; alumni association in Baltimore. He's a loyal Aggie. But he's not dumb.

Mr. Moore doesn't think this Aggie team can beat Wake, unless maybe the Wake bus breaks down on the way to the arena and they're too dumb to find the place on foot and end up forfeiting.

Still, he wants to believe the Aggies will make a game of it, because this is what fans do, suspend reality, even for a short while.

"See, they got it in their minds, they really want to show that a small school can really do well against a big school," Mr. Moore says. "If they can just hang in there and play with these guys, it would be a big seller for the school."

His friend, Laban Maultsby of Randallstown, agrees. Mr. Maultsby, a retired school teacher and another A&T; alum, is wearing a blue Aggie Pride baseball cap.

The guy next to him is also decked out in A&T; blue, so you decide this might not be the time to bring up the Thermopylae analogy, and that business of 300 dead Spartans strewn amid the boulders.

In their post-practice news conference, Aggie forward John Floyd, the team's leading scorer, and guard Phillip Allen say all the right things.

Yes, they have enormous respect for Wake -- they've even played against some of the Deacs in pick-up games, since Wake's campus in Winston-Salem is only 28 miles from Greensboro.

No, they're not in awe of Wake or their high-scoring senior guard, Randolph Childress. When one writer brings up the long odds of a 16th seed knocking off a No. 1 seed, a brief scowl flashes across Phillip Allen's face.

"We're college basketball players, they're college basketball players," he says. "There's no Superman here. We just have to go out and play with confidence."

"Right," whispers a TV guy from out of town. "They're gonna get waxed."

'Dream come true'

The lobby of the Omni Inner Harbor Hotel is decorated with brown balloons in the shape of basketballs and big red, white and blue banners that read: "Welcome NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Championship."

It is 3 o'clock Wednesday afternoon. The Aggies have just finished lunch in one of the ballrooms. Next to a baby grand piano and not far from a painting of a mountain vista (which looks eeriely like Thermopylae, but never mind) sits Toby Jordan in his navy blue and gold warm-ups.

Toby Jordan is the only Aggie from this area. A 6-foot-8 freshman forward, he played last year as a senior at Aberdeen High. His family, who still live in Aberdeen, will be down for the game.

Mr. Jordan started a few games for A&T; early in the year when Mr. Floyd broke his hand. Now, with Mr. Floyd healthy and averaging 17 points and nearly six rebounds per game, he's a reserve.

But how many freshman make it to the Big Dance? How many get to play in front of announcers Dick Stockton and Billy Packer and the CBS cameras and the national media?

"This whole thing is a dream come true for me," Mr. Jordan says softly. "I've been dreaming of this moment ever since I picked up a basketball for the first time in second grade."

As delicately as possible, it is suggested that the outcome of the game might not be, um, exactly what he had in mind.

Mr. Jordan nods thoughtfully. Then he tells you that ever since the Aggies began preparing for Wake, he has not heard one negative thought expressed by any of the players. Not on campus, not on the plane ride up, not during practice, nada.

"We look at it this way: We have a chance to win," he says. "We've played good teams before. We lost to Georgia Tech by only four points. We're looking to make history."

A few minutes later, Mr. Jordan is off to join his teammates. They will head down to the Inner Harbor to see the sights. Then they'll have dinner and watch films of some of Wake's games.

The game with the Demon Deacons is drawing ever closer.

In the hours before their fierce battle with the Persians, Leonidas and the Spartans sang and laughed and made grand plans for the after-life.

They did not, however, break down film of Xerxes' troops. You wonder what would have happened if they did.

8 minutes of fame

In the end, though, all the film and all the practice and all the positive thinking didn't mean diddly.

Yesterday morning dawned sunny and warm in Baltimore and Wake Forest made it to the Arena without a large crane dropping on the team bus, and that was that for the Aggies.

It was a game for eight minutes. Then with the score 18-12 Wake, it was as if the Deacons splashed cold water on their faces and said: OK, let's try that again.

Randolph Childress, silky as ever, hit a 15-foot jumper. Ricardo Peral hit a jumper. Rusty LaRue made a three-pointer. Travis Banks dunked a rebound. Suddenly it was 27-12 and maybe the fat lady wasn't singing yet, but she was warming up in the wings. The old girl was definitely breaking a sweat.

Carolina A&T; showed plenty of heart the rest of the game, but heart doesn't get you anywhere if you can't put the ball in the basket. Leonidas had heart, and look where it got him. He's still dead.

No, the Aggies lost because they couldn't hit the ocean with their jump shots. And Wake's splendid 6-10 center, Tim Duncan (21 points), was too much for the A&T; big men, Mr. Floyd and Anthony Jones, both only 6-6.

Roy Thomas, his navy sport coat drenched with perspiration, was classy in defeat and so were his players.

"We got beat and we're hurting," said Mr. Thomas in the post-game interview. "We got a kid in [the locker room], Anthony Jones, who's so upset he can't even come out here. You do your best and go on from there. We just played a good club.

". . . But you're looking at guys who have given me everything they had all year long. I wouldn't trade this moment for everything in the world."

In the quiet of the Aggies' locker room, John Floyd was asked to explain what makes young men throw themselves so eagerly into a game like this, against mighty Wake Forest, knowing that everyone else fully expected the Aggies to get hammered.

"You gotta think you can win," Mr. Floyd said softly. "Or else why come here? We just wanted to come out and make history."

History was made at Thermopylae, too. In the eerie stillness following the battle, the Persians, at least those who weren't pulling spears out of their thighs, remarked that they had never faced more valiant foes.

As for the Spartans, their courage is still celebrated nearly 2,000 years later, which might be of some consolation to the Aggies.

Or it might not.

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