NCAA Tournament comes to Consol Energy Center

Pat Higgins & Addison Smith | The Duquesne Duke

Second and third-round play in the NCAA Tournament returned to the Consol Energy Center for the first time since 2012 over the weekend, and Duquesne played host to the usual dash of madness that is customary to tournament basketball in the month of March.

Audiences that attended the full four-game slate of games on Thursday caught some terrific action as part of what many consider the best two days of the tournament, when 32 games play simultaneously across the country between noon and 10 p.m. According to DU’s associate athletic director of media relations Dave Saba, over 400 credentials were issued to local and national media, while over 100 others volunteered their time to ensure the events ran smoothly.

Spectators were treated to live action from both the East and Midwest regions of the bracket, and saw a good variety of talent from across the country. No. 1 Villanova made the trip out the turnpike, while Notre Dame, Texas, Butler, NC State and LSU all descended upon Pittsburgh for some hoops on Fifth Avenue.

First on the schedule was action from the bracket’s Midwest region. No. 3 Notre Dame matched up against No. 14 Northeastern shortly afternoon noon. The Wildcats came close to pulling off a classic 3-14 upset and battled the Fighting Irish all the way down to the final minute of the game after trailing by as many as 11 points with under seven minutes to go.

Northeastern trailed 67-65 with the ball and just 30 seconds left in the game, but the Wildcats couldn’t find a shot and ND guard Jerian Grant forced a turnover with three seconds remaining to secure a spot in the third round for the Irish.

No. 6 Butler took on No. 11 Texas in the mid-afternoon action at Consol and advanced to face Notre Dame on Saturday evening. The Bulldogs downed the Longhorns 56-48 behind a 20-point effort from guard Kellen Dunham, who shot 5-of-14 from the field and 8-of-11 from the free-throw line. With the win, Butler advanced to face ND on Saturday.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 Villanova demolished No. 16 Lafayette 93-52 to advance to the third round of the East bracket. Six Wildcats scored in double digits, and VU shot 63 percent from the field to cruise past the Patriot League champions.

Just 40 minutes after the conclusion of the VU-Lafayette tout, No. 8 North Carolina State needed all 40 minutes to get past No. 9 Louisiana State University. After taking a 40-26 lead into the halftime intermission, LSU stormed back in the second half and actually led by as many as six points with five minutes to go in the second half. NC State battled back, however, and guard Beejay Anya sank two layups, including a game-winning buzzer beater, in the final 50 seconds to carry the Wildcats past the Tigers.

On Saturday, the four winners faced off for two tickets to the Sweet 16. In the first game on Saturday’s schedule, Villanova shot at a much lower rate than it did on Thursday, allowing for NC State to pull the upset. The Wildcats of VU shot just 31 percent from the field, while NC State dominated on the glass, outrebounding the Wildcasts 39-29.

In the second game on Saturday night, Notre Dame again survived a potential upset over lower-seeded Butler 67-64 in overtime. Kellen Dunahm sank two free throws with just under two minutes to go to shrink ND’s lead to just one, but Irish forward Steve Vasturia sank a 3-pointer and guard Jerian Grant converted on a layup on consecutive possessions to put the game on ice.

Excluding Villanova’s 93-52 thrashing of Lafayette in the first round, the average margin of victory in the other five games at Consol was just four points.

For these student athletes, only one team, probably Kentucky, will ultimately emerge from the madness as champion. For some, these games are the last they’ll play as collegiate athletes. For others, they are a chance to cement a legacy among their program’s greats. A common denominator for the competitors who took to the hardwood at Consol this weekend was the opportunity to visit Pittsburgh.

Following his team’s loss to NC State on Saturday night, VU coach Jay Wright thanked Duquesne’s athletic department for hosting the competition. The Wildcats practiced at the Palumbo Center after arriving in Pittsburgh prior to their second round faceoff with Lafayette.

“Being in Pittsburgh, for an old Big East town, I want to thank everybody in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It’s a great weekend in Pittsburgh. It’s a great town and really I appreciate all the people, Duquesne and all the Pitt people that were so nice to us here. It was great to spend a weekend here.”

NC State guard Caleb Martin, who scored four points in the third round win over VU, said he relished the chance to see the Steel City.

“It’s been pretty awesome to come here. It’s a pretty cool environment here in Pittsburgh,” he said. “You get to go around and sight see a little bit, but for the most part we’re here for business. It’s been fun playing in front of different crowds and playing against different teams out of your conference.”