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NCAA magic arrives in double overtimes NCAA TOURNAMENT TH ROAD STARTS HERE

THE BALTIMORE SUN

It was the locker room of tears, up the red spiral staircase at the Baltimore Arena, up and out of the NCAA tournament. North Carolina A&T; took the long, sad journey in the afternoon. Penn followed the same heartbreaking path at night.

No. 16 seed North Carolina A&T; got blown out by Wake Forest. No. 12 Penn lost in overtime to Alabama. Overtime victories to oust Big Ten and Southeastern Conference teams -- that was too much to ask on this day. But Penn came close, so close. Oh, how Penn tried.

Down 11 points in the second half, down 11 points in overtime, and still the Quakers wouldn't quit. Earlier in the day, Saint Louis had beaten Minnesota in OT, but this was different. Saint Louis blew a big lead. Penn came from behind.

The final was Alabama 91, Penn 85, but that's not what the Quakers will remember. They'll remember their five senior starters and their three unbeaten Ivy League seasons. And they'll remember their last moment together, the one in Locker Room 5.

"I'll probably be the last one to take this jersey off," said Penn senior guard Jerome Allen, tugging on his blue road uniform and fighting back tears as his teammates sobbed and embraced each other around him.

People ask why the NCAA tournament is the best event in sports. It was all on display at the Arena yesterday. The raw emotion. The lure of the upset. The feeling that no other game can be as important, not now, not later, not ever again.

The magic was missing in the opener (Wake 79, A&T; 47) and the nightcap (Oklahoma State 73, Drexel 49), but it surfaced for Saint Louis-Minnesota, then magnified for Penn-Alabama. The sellout crowd adopted the Quakers, stood for them, cheered for them. Here in the home of the little guy, it all made sense.

This is the city of small conferences, the city of the MEAC and the MAAC and the Big South. This is the city the NFL rejected, the city that won't play Scab Ball, the city that loves underdogs like none other, because it's always an underdog itself.

One look at Alabama sophomore Antonio McDyess, and you knew who was the underdog in this game. McDyess, 6 feet 9 and 220 pounds, thrashed Penn for 39 points and 19 rebounds. "An NBA player," Penn forward Scott Kegler said. "One of the best athletes I've ever seen in my life."

Ten of McDyess' baskets came on slams or tip-ins, but Alabama needed to score on 13 of its 14 overtime possessions to put away the Quakers. No wonder Alabama's Roy Rogers compared them to "an ingrown toenail."

It was close, so close. The Quakers will ask the questions forever: What if Allen had stolen the ball from Artie Griffin with the score tied and six seconds left in regulation? What if Alabama's Bryan Passink had missed his second free throw to keep it a three-point game with 14 seconds left in OT?

Allen was looking at a game-winning breakaway layup if he stripped Griffin -- "I started smiling after that," he said. "I knew I almost had it." Instead, he nearly pulled off something even more heroic, hitting back-to-back three-pointers after Penn trailed by nine points with 27 seconds left in overtime.

The Quakers went without a basket in the final 4:47 of regulation and the first 3:08 of overtime, but they made their foul shots to force OT, then climbed back once more. "It must have been a great game to watch," Penn guard Matt Maloney said, "because it was a great game to play."

And so it was, on the first day of the tournament, a day that gave us everything from the return of Jim Traber as a radio talk-show host to Saint Louis' first NCAA victory since 1952 to a 6-footer jumping center against Tim Duncan.

Traber, broadcasting for WWLS in Oklahoma City, had to catch Saint Louis' 64-61 victory on his hotel-room television -- he was on the air from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Talk to us, Whammer.

"I'm a wild man -- I tell it like it is," said the former Oriole and Columbia native. "When I started in the afternoon slot, our ratings were 0.9. My new rating just came out, and it was a 4.7 -- and I'm opposite Rush Limbaugh in the most conservative state in the country."

Whatever, Traber missed Saint Louis' becoming Baltimore's new darling -- and not just because it hails from another city the NFL can't stand. In a game with 80 missed shots, it was only fitting that Big Ten fraud Minnesota missed four threes in the last 13 seconds with a chance to tie.

Alas, the fun soon will be over for the Billikens, who next face Randolph Childress and Wake Forest. As Saint Louis coach Charlie Spoonhour put it: "Childress scored more in two days than I did in my senior year of college" -- and Spoonhour attended the University of the Ozarks.

Indeed, Childress is so unnerving to opponents, A&T; tried a new strategy for a No. 16 seed yesterday -- it conceded before the opening tap. Yes, that was 6-0 Tyrone "Buddha" Brice lined up against 6-10 Duncan -- the better for A&T; to set up its zone defense.

As bad as things went for A&T;, another Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference school actually had a worse day. Leave it to Morgan State to celebrate the arrival of the NCAA tournament in Baltimore by getting hit with a three-year probation.

Heaven knows why Morgan felt compelled to cheat in eight sports -- including men's and women's tennis. And heaven knows why, with all the ineligible players it was using, its teams weren't MEAC powerhouses.

Whatever, this wasn't a day to talk about all that it is wrong with college sports, but a day to talk about all that is right. Penn coach Fran Dunphy retreated to the stands after his post-game interview, and for a time sat by himself. His five seniors had played their last game. An era had ended.

"The last few weeks I've tried not to think about it," Dunphy said. "You try to keep your mind on other things. They've meant so much to Penn. They've meant so much to me. I know that."

Dunphy stopped himself.

"You play mind games sometimes," he said. "You do anything just to avoid thinking about it."

He can face it now. He can be proud.

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