Pittsburgh welcomes March Madness to town

Luke Henne | Sports Editor | Pittsburgh’s PPG Paints Arena was the site of six NCAA Tournament games this past weekend.

Luke Henne | Sports Editor

March 24, 2022

For the first time since 2018, Pittsburgh and Duquesne University hosted NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship First and Second Round action this past weekend at PPG Paints Arena.

Eight teams came to the city with hopes of beginning their journey for a national title. But after six games and a weekend packed with high-stakes competition, only two teams are leaving town with their goal still a reality.

The First Round games – all of which fell in the bracket’s South Region – got underway Friday afternoon, when No. 7-seeded Ohio State took on No. 10-seeded Loyola of Chicago.

Coming off a run to the Final Four in 2018 and a trip to the Sweet 16 a season ago, the underdog Ramblers were a popular pick to pull an upset over the higher-seeded Buckeyes.

However, despite making just one of 15 attempts from beyond the 3-point line, Ohio State managed to hold Loyola of Chicago to under 45 points for the first time since Jan. 27 in a 54-41 victory.

E.J. Liddell, who scored 16 points and added 10 rebounds, paced the Buckeyes in the victory.

“They [Loyola] play good defense. They’re a top-20 defense nationally,” Liddell said. “And [I] felt like they came out there and competed, and we did as well. So this is a great defensive game, not a high-scoring game, not a big highlight game.

“But, I mean, we just had to make those extra-effort plays on [the] defensive end, and I feel like we did that tonight.”

Loyola of Chicago Head Coach Drew Valentine, a 30-year old in his first season as the head man, didn’t want to let one loss be symbolic of a season in which his squad went 25-8 with a Missouri Valley Conference tournament title.

“I was at a loss for words after coming into the locker room because there’s so many different emotions,” Valentine said. “But I think the main thing that I want to focus on is [that] the program’s in a lot better spot than it was when a lot of these guys got here five years ago.”

Friday’s second game featured No. 15-seeded Delaware and No. 2-seeded Villanova. In 2018, Villanova’s run to a national championship began with two victories in Pittsburgh.

The Wildcats didn’t let any thought of an upset prevail, as they bested the Fightin’ Blue Hens 80-60 behind game highs in points (21) and assists (six) from Justin Moore.

“We were reading the ball screen coverage and if they were coming to help, who was helping,” Moore said. “Once we figured that out, we were able to figure out when we could take our open shots, make that extra pass and find the bigs posting up.”

Delaware Head Coach Martin Ingelsby was proud of his team’s will to win early, but knew that Villanova’s 13-made 3-pointers was the difference in the game.

“We battled. We got after it,” Ingelsby said. “I thought we got off to a really, really good start in the first half and put a little scare in them. I think the end of the first half and early part of the second half they were able to really extend that lead, and we were battling uphill from there.”

The weekend’s closest game opened up Friday’s evening session of games, when No. 4-seeded Illinois survived a scare from No. 13-seeded Chattanooga in a 54-53 contest.

The underdog Mocs led by as many as 14 points and held an advantage for almost 39 of the game’s 40 minutes, but two made free throws by the Fighting Illini’s Alfonso Plummer with 12 seconds remaining gave Illinois the lead for good.

Chattanooga’s Malachi Smith, who led the Mocs with 12 points, had a shot blocked by Illinois’ Coleman Hawkins on the ensuing possession. He regained control of the ball and put up one final shot as time ticked off the clock, but his attempt was unsuccessful.

“ … I felt like if you’re gonna get a shot for the win, that’s a shot you’ll take,” Smith said. “And it’s frustrating because [it’s] a shot I work on a lot, and it didn’t go in. And that’s all I can say. I just let my teammates down, and I just missed a shot that I usually make.”

Illinois survived largely due to the play of Kofi Cockburn, who scored 17 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and blocked three Chattanooga shots.

“This is the NCAA Tournament, and things get tough,” Cockburn said. “[Head Coach Brad Underwood] reminds us things get tougher each week, each game.”

Friday’s final game saw No. 5-seeded Houston control the game from start to finish, beating No. 12-seeded UAB 82-68 due largely to Kyler Edwards, who posted 25 points, seven rebounds and three assists.

“ … I like to stay confident, so I always think my shot is going,” Edwards said. “So my teammates look for me a lot because they know I can shoot. So credit to them and the team [for] looking for me.”

Houston Head Coach Kelvin Sampson stressed the growth of his team throughout the season as being a key factor for his Cougars’ 14-point win.

“I don’t know if I’ve ever had a team I’m as proud of as this bunch for everything that they’ve had to overcome [injuries to key players],” Sampson said. “But also proud because of how they’ve grown.

“Growth. Growth is important for a basketball team. You have to grow. But you have to grow together. And I’m fortunate that I have high-character kids, big-time high-character kids.”

UAB Head Coach Andy Kennedy, who led the Blazers to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2015 in just his second season on the job, knew the challenge wasn’t an easy one, and it showed.

“Coming in, I’ve got nothing but the utmost respect for Kelvin Sampson and the Houston program,” Kennedy said. “And we knew we were going to have to really be on edge in order to have an opportunity to advance.”

After a day off in between, Second Round action got underway on Sunday, as Houston battled Illinois with a trip to the Sweet 16 on the line.

Despite brief runs from the Fighting Illini, the Cougars led for almost 33 minutes of game time in a 68-53 victory. The win helped Houston reach the Sweet 16 for the third NCAA Tournament in a row.

Sampson credited the program’s sustained success to having a locker room oriented on good culture.

“Our kids … they really believe in the culture we have created over the years,” Sampson said. “And we’ve lost four starters every year for so long, it just seems natural that we have a brand-new team this year.

“… But the culture never changes. Because they’re great kids and they’re high-character kids, they buy in. It’s never about them. Our program is always about we and us, and that’s what happens when you have great kids.”

Pittsburgh’s final game of the weekend saw Villanova battle Ohio State. The Wildcats looked to reach the Sweet 16 for the fourth time in the last six tournaments, while the Buckeyes tried to advance past the first weekend for the first time since 2013.

Although Ohio State made the game competitive late in the second half, Villanova fended off a ferocious comeback and won 71-61 behind 20 points and four assists from Collin Gillespie.

Villanova Head Coach Jay Wright applauded the Buckeyes’ comeback attempt.

“I would like to start by saying we really respect Ohio State and what a tough, intelligent team they are,” Wright said. “We take pride in this victory because we watch a lot of film on them, and they’re really good.”

Ohio State Head Coach Chris Holtmann knew that Villanova’s quick starts, both at tipoff and at the start of the second half, made a difference.

“Yeah, obviously a painful loss,” Holtmann said. “I hate it for our players, but let’s give Villanova credit, particularly how they started both halves, I thought those were critical stretches for us. Give them credit.”

With the wins, Houston and Villanova will travel to AT&T Center in San Antonio for Sweet 16 games on Thursday. Houston will take on No. 1-seeded Arizona, while Villanova will battle No. 11-seeded Michigan.

Villanova’s 2018 run culminated with a title game victory over Michigan at San Antonio’s Alamodome.

PPG Paints Arena (formerly CONSOL Energy Center), which previously hosted games in 2012, 2015 and 2018, will see First and Second Round action return to Pittsburgh in 2024.