Georgia Tech brought its freshman phenom, a national ranking and name recognition to the Omni in Atlanta. Its opponent, from the fourth-smallest school in Division I, had a modest winning streak and an identity crisis.
A sports commentator on CNN later referred to the team that upset the Yellow Jackets on Monday as St. Francis, but Georgia Tech won't have any trouble getting it right. Ranked 21st and coming off a victory over No. 25 Louisville, the Yellow Jackets were blindsided by tiny Mount St. Mary's, 71-69, on a shot at the buzzer that could be heard around the country.
How significant was the outcome? For starters, this was the Northeast Conference's first win over a nationally ranked opponent, and only its second against a team from the Atlantic Coast Conference (Wagner upset Duke, 84-77, in 1983).
Perhaps even more telling, coach Jim Phelan said he doesn't remember a bigger win among his 741 at the Mount. Forget the NCAA College Division national championship game of 1962. And the 69-62 victory over Rider last season that gave Phelan his first NCAA Division I tournament berth. Somehow, they pale in comparison.
"Here was a top-of-the-line program like Georgia Tech," said Phelan, in his 42nd season at the Mount and the second-winningest active coach in Division I behind North Carolina's Dean Smith. "As far as the general public is concerned, and as far as I'm concerned, this is as big a win as we've ever had."
The final play will be talked about in Emmitsburg for years to come. The scoreboard clock showed seven-tenths of a second remaining. Guard Riley Inge found Jeff Balistrere alone under the basket with the inbounds pass, and the senior forward's off-balance layup provided his only points of the game, leaving the Yellow Jackets at 6-4 and stunned.
Tech coach Bobby Cremins wasn't available for comment yesterday, but he told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution after the game that "across the country, people will look at this in disbelief. It's hard to figure things out. I hate this for Georgia Tech and our program. There will be a lot of negative things said about this, and we deserve it."
Inge had missed a hanging jumper in the final seconds, but the ball went out of bounds off a Tech player, giving the Mount one last chance in regulation.
"We ran a play that we always run and they left Balistrere open. I was flabbergasted. I couldn't believe it," Phelan said.
Senior guard Chris McGuthrie, who scored 37 points, stood in one corner "and everybody was eyeballing him," Phelan said.
The ending stirred up memories of the 1981 NCAA Division II South Atlantic Region final against Elizabeth City in Emmitsburg -- until now, at least, regarded as the most famous play in the college's athletic history.
The Mount again looked to inbound the ball -- in this case under the opponent's basket -- trailing by one with seconds remaining. Using another set play, the Mount player inbounding the ball sprinted along the sideline, inducing the defender to do the same, unaware a fellow Mountaineer was standing close by waiting to be crashed into. Sure enough, Dennis Dempsey was fouled. Dempsey waved to the home crowd, made the free throws, and advanced the Mount into the next round.
Cremins centered much of his post-game discussion on McGuthrie, who was 8-for-16 from beyond the arc and has 69 points in his last two games. He's the second-leading active scorer in Division I, and he seems to gain another admirer with every jump shot.
"That young man played a great game," said Cremins, who got 13 points from much-ballyhooed freshman guard Stephon Marbury, but also eight turnovers.
Phelan, who arrived home late yesterday afternoon and was greeted by freezing rain and constant phone calls, said the Mount had caught Tech at the right time -- between Saturday's win over Louisville and Friday's game against No. 2 Massachusetts.
"They probably needed a hard game, but they didn't need a loss to us," he said. "I wasn't shocked that we won because, basically, their strength was our strength, the guards. And if we could neutralize or better their guards, our fear was their big guys would beat us. But they didn't go to their big guys. They tried to beat us at the guard position. And we controlled the ball; we had 10 turnovers and they had 21. As a result, we took 15 more shots than they did."
The Mount has won four straight after an 0-2 start that included an opening loss at Wake Forest. Phelan's team will take another swing at the big time with a game Dec. 28 at Minnesota.
"I don't think we'll be sneaking up on anybody now," Phelan said, laughing. "Basketball is a crazy game. You just never know what's going to happen."