Close Games Make for Sensational Last Day of Sweet Sixteen

Close Games Make for Sensational Last Day of Sweet Sixteen

By Myles Papponi

The Sweet Sixteen is arguably the point in the tournament where the most exciting and highest-quality basketball is being played. All the teams are talented, playing at their best level, and have momentum going into the round, making every game close, but there is still room for unexpected upsets. The Men’s NCAA Tournament continued Friday with the conclusion of the Sweet Sixteen, and all these components were prevalent.

NC State, the #11 seed, kept the madness in the tournament going by upsetting #2 Marquette 67-58 during the day’s first game. Despite getting quality looks, Marquette could not hit water if they shot standing on the edge of a boat, going 4 for 31 from three and shooting 33.3% from the field. NC State moved the ball well during the game, notching 14 assists and three starters scoring double digits. Guard DJ Horne led his team with 19 points while also hitting incredible step-back threes late in the shot clock. NC State big man DJ Burns Jr. only put up four shots during the game for 4 points, but he is truly amazing to witness. Burns stands 6’9” and weighs a strong 275 pounds. With feet as quick as a hiccup, he possesses one of the softest touches off the glass and the smoothest footwork you’ll ever see. While Burns did not score great in the game, he made up for it with his exquisite passing. The big man had seven assists for the game, making the correct play almost every time he is doubled-teamed or can’t create his own shot.

NC State did turn the ball over 14 times, but Marquette could not capitalize off the Wolfpack’s mistakes with just 11 points off turnovers. Marquette cut the lead to 6 with a late run in the second half. However, NC State made the timely shots in the end, including a dagger three by Michael O’Connell to put the Wolfpack ahead 11 with under two minutes left. NC State will continue its magical run in the tournament with a trip to the Elite Eight, where they have not been since 1986. The last remaining double-digit seed in the tournament has now won eight straight.  Excluding Golden Eagle fans, people can’t help but smile watching this team win, and the energy and confidence that NC State currently has will make them a tough out in the tournament.

The city of Motown hosted a great matchup between #1 Purdue and #5 Gonzaga. Neither team was “too proud to beg” for a trip to the Elite Eight, but only one could move on, and the other would follow the “tracks of their tears” back home. It was not as “easy as 1-2-3” for Purdue when the Bulldogs made it a close contest in the first half, where there were nine lead changes. Going into the second half down by just four, Gonzaga was in a great position to make a second-half push to come out on top. Purdue would have another idea in mind, giving Gonzaga a taste of their own medicine with a huge second half. Extending their lead to 18 at one point, Purdue drilled nine shots from deep and pounded the ball inside with 40 points in the paint. Purdue star center Zach Edey will most likely have a few bumps and bruises in the morning after Gonzaga’s physical and aggressive play, but it is the cost of doing business as he led his team with 27 points and 14 rebounds.

There was enough to go around for the Boilermakers, sharing the ball 24 times behind an excellent game from guard Braden Smith, who had 15 assists, 14 points, and 8 boards. Gonzaga went further in the tournament than many people speculated they would and went toe to toe with a talented team that appears determined to make this year different. The game’s final score was 68-80 in favor of Purdue, allowing them to advance to the Elite Eight. There, they will play for a trip to the Final Four, something Boilermaker fans have not witnessed since 1980. Purdue’s opponent in the Elite Eight will be Tennessee, who will not go away quietly in any game as they continue to rack up win after win in the Tournament. 

The #4 seed Duke faced off against #1 Houston in a tight contest in which neither team wanted to give an inch. The teams shot identical percentages from the field (40.8%), each going 20 for 49. With neither team leading by more than eight and the game being extremely close throughout, the slightest advantage or most minor mistake would be enough to lift a team to victory. Duke sank four more shots from beyond the arc than Houston and grabbed four more rebounds. Houston would continue to fight but ultimately fell short as Duke made the necessary shots and defensive stops in crunch time. The Cougars would be without star guard Jamal Shead for most of the game after he sprained his ankle badly in the first half and only played 13 minutes. His presence would be missed since he has been lighting it up for his team in the tournament. Houston fans will wonder if the outcome would have been different had he not hurt his ankle.

Blue Devils center Kyle Filipowski led his team to another great victory with 16 points and 9 rebounds. The final score of the game was 54-51. The Blue Devils advance to their 24th Elite Eight appearance and first under second-year head coach Jon Scheyer. Duke has been flying under the radar this year in the tournament, not having much pressure put on them, allowing them to play their brand of basketball confidently. That is all about to change when they face #11 NC State in the Elite Eight. When they face their fellow ACC conference team, all the pressure will be on Duke to see if they allow the Wolfpack to continue their extraordinary run in the Big Dance and knock off another top 5 seed to advance to the Final Four. These teams have played each other twice this season, and each team won a game. Most recently, during the ACC Tournament Quarterfinal where Duke lost by 5. This is definitely a must-see matchup to tune into on Sunday.

The Sweet Sixteen came to a close with another close game between the #2 Tennessee Volunteers and the #3 Creighton Bluejays. Creighton held a slim one-point lead at the half but would allow the Vols to go on an 18-0 run in the second half. Tennessee made many think the game was over after this electrifying run, but the Bluejays would get up after being knocked down. After the deficit reached 16, Creighton brought the lead to within 3 with under 5:00 minutes left in the game after a 12-3 run and a silky-smooth corner three from Steven Ashworth. Tennessee guard Dalton Knecht would have an answer in the following possession with a three of his own and drill critical shots in key minutes to have a game-high 24 points. The Vols played their best basketball down the stretch of the game, including an And-1 Lay-up by Tobe Awaka to put his team up seven late in the game. Tennessee advances to the elite eight for only the second time in their program’s history. The Vols will not be completely satisfied as they look to make more history for their school by advancing to their first-ever Final Four if they can defeat #1 Purdue.

There is still much to be decided in the 2024 NCAA Tournament as the Elite Eight begins Saturday. The first Elite Eight matchup will tip off at 4:09 p.m. MDT, and #3 Illinois will do all it can to knock off the top overall seed, UConn. Following that game, #6 Clemson will face #4 Alabama. Saturday evening is chock-full of great basketball and thrilling matchups as teams do whatever possible to be a part of the Final Four.