NCAA underdogs: They came, saw and got waxed Their Best Shot

March 17, 1995|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,Sun Staff Writer

Continental flight 1624 has just landed at BWI and down Concourse B comes the North Carolina A&T University men's basketball team, happy to be here at the Big Dance and fully aware that it's supposed to be, for lack of a better term, dead meat.

A little over 24 hours from now on this hazy Wednesday morning, the 16th-seeded Aggies will play top-seeded Wake Forest in the opening round of the NCAA East Regional tournament at the Baltimore Arena. And the Aggies will get crushed. The final score will be 79-47, Wake. The last 20 minutes will be so ugly, you want to cover your eyes and peek out through your fingers, the way you would at a bad car accident.

Each March, college basketball gives us a story line like this, four homely teams like Carolina A&T, one in each regional, which have little or no shot to beat their opponents. Consider this: Since the tournament went to 64 teams in 1985, a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No. 16 seed. Never, ever.

The oddsmakers in Vegas had this one figured from the get-go: Wake was a 23-point favorite. And with good reason. The Aggies arrived in Baltimore with a mediocre 15-14 record, winners of the humble Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference with a thrilling win over Coppin State in the tourney finals. Wake finished 24-5 and won the championship of the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference.

Of the Aggies vs. the Demon Deacons, you could say it was the classic David-and-Goliath story. But if you said that, you'd be dead wrong.

Check the box scores from back then: David won. David was the plucky underdog, but he got in a lucky shot and killed the Philistine giant Goliath. It was in all the papers.

Maybe this is a better analogy for the Aggies: In 480 B.C., King Xerxes I of Persia invaded Greece with a huge army. Leonidas, king of Greece, took 300 Spartans and went up against the Persians in a small mountain pass near Thermopylae. Maybe you saw the movie. Anyway, Leonidas and the Spartans were all killed.

They were noble and brave and yadda-yadda-yadda, but they ended up dead just the same.

Of course, here in Concourse B on this late winter morning, there is no talk of death or its modern-day equivalent, losing. The Aggies' first-year coach, Roy Thomas, appears relaxed and confident. And, as the players in their navy blue and gold warm-ups head to the baggage carousel, they joke softly among themselves and tell a passing skycap that it's the Deacs who are about to fall.

"Everyone recognizes the position we're in playing Wake," says sports information director Charles Mooney. "They're No. 3 in the whole country. We're No. 976 or whatever. But an upset's possible."

"We're not coming here just for a vacation," Roy Thomas says later. "I brought three suits up here just like [Wake coach] Dave Odom did. We're not here to shake hands and go home.

"Sure, we know we're outmanned. I'm not stupid. We know we have to play a perfect game to win. But I know 240 other schools that would like to have my problem now."

This, then, is the story of North Carolina A&T's visit to Baltimore, which is a host of the NCAA Tournament for the first time. It's a story of courage. It's a story of determination. But mostly it's a quick story.

Because in the end, the Aggies got clobbered, just like everyone said they would.

And today they'll be heading back home and so will the 350-plus loyal fans who made the trip up here to cheer them on, hoping Charm City would turn out to be some sort of basketball Lourdes.

Sometimes you go up against a superior foe and get lucky, the way David did. More often than not, you end up stretched out in that mountain pass.

L But that diminishes the nobility of your effort not one bit.

Nine times zero

North Carolina A&T is a historically black urban university of 8,000 students in Greensboro. It was nuts down there recently.

This was the Aggies' ninth visit to the Big Dance -- unfortunately, they are now 0-9 at this baby and need to learn a few new steps. But all week long on campus, there were marching bands and pep rallies and stirring speeches by faculty members to fire up the team.

Maybe one story best illustrates the atmosphere: It's last Sunday. Roy Thomas is sitting at his kitchen table filling out travel vouchers. The phone rings. This would be no big deal, except it's 11:30 at night, so the coach naturally wonders what psycho is calling at this hour.

The psycho turns out to be Dr. Edward B. Fort, who isn't really a psycho, although he is the school's chancellor.

"He was just calling to wish us good luck," Mr. Thomas is explaining now. "He said: 'Anything can happen. Go up there and play. I know you'll make the school proud.' "

Mr. Thomas smiles. "Can you imagine the chancellor of any other school doing that at that hour?"

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