Saturday, March 22, 2008

Scene in the RBC right out of 'Gladiator'

Before Friday night's first-round game in the NCAA Tournament East Regional in Raleigh, my seat on press row was on the end of the court where No. 1 seed North Carolina was doing warm-up drills.

The Tar Heels seemed relaxed, even at home in the RBC Center, N.C. State's home floor where Carolina is seldom cheered. But on this night, many UNC fans tinted the arena light blue. The Heels should have been at ease considering that no top seed had ever lost to a No. 16 seed in the NCAA Tournament and their opponent, Mount St. Mary's, probably wasn't going to be the first.

After the teams finished their shootaround and player introductions were done, Mount St. Mary's came back to its bench for a few last words from head coach Milan Brown and his staff before the opening tip. I was seated about 10 feet away and the contrast between the Mount's players and the Tar Heels was striking.

Several of MSM's reserves had physical builds more commonly seen on NCAA Division II rosters. In fact, the Mount's dynamic star guard Jeremy Goode — at 5-foot-9, 170 pounds — bore resemblance to a certain former Barton College star point guard.

But more obviously was the difference in temperament between the teams. The MSM assistant coaches fidgeted with papers in their hands as their eyes flit nervously about the arena as they waited for Brown to return to the huddle. The players seemed taken aback by the sheer size of the stage as thousands of Carolina blue-clad fans roared their desire for the Heels to take it to the Mount.

The RBC Center suddenly seemed like a modern-day Roman Colosseum without the blood and gore.

However, UNC's 113-74 victory was probably gory enough for the MSM players, who no doubt are now content to be able to tell their future grandkids someday they played the No. 1 team in the country in the NCAA Tournament.

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