UNC Asheville came close to a historic upset of Syracuse because of an unwavering belief

PITTSBURGH – In the days before they nearly made the impossible seem possible, before the country held its breath and an official’s whistle would break their hearts, the UNC Asheville Bulldogs knew they were going to beat the Syracuse Orange.

They believed this because their coach, Eddie Biedenbach, told them so. He told them this on the first day of practice when he screamed, “You don’t back down from anyone!” He told them this after assistant coach Nick McDevitt scouted Syracuse and helped devise a game plan to shoot over its zone and drive into the middle. And he delivered the message one last time before the game when he said, “Don’t be surprised to have a lead at halftime.”

J.P. Primm and the Bulldogs looked poised to become the first No. 16 seed to upset a No. 1 but couldn't hold back the Orange.
(Getty Images)

Then when they did Thursday afternoon and the players on the 16th-seeded team led the No. 1 seed in the East Region and laughed and danced in the halftime locker room, he glared at them and said, “I told you not to be surprised.”

And so after they would not become the first 16th seed to beat a No. 1, it was this belief – rather than the referees’ confounding calls – that made the loss hurt most.

“I personally felt the better team did not win tonight,” Asheville guard J.P. Primm said.

Not that they understood the calls that went against them any more than most of the 18,927 who thundered a disapproval unexpected from a neutral-site crowd. How could they grasp the officials making an obscure lane-violation call when Primm crashed the boards too early on a missed Syracuse free throw? Or understand how anyone could think the Orange’s Brandon Triche didn’t knock the ball out of bounds late in the game? Nor would they be able to absorb the official explanation given by the officials: It was not a reviewable play, and since it was also a judgment call the officials would have nothing more to add.

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There’s no way you can tell the 22-year-old Primm, who nearly stunned the universe in the biggest game of his life, that this loss was somehow justified. Biedenbach didn’t even bother to try.

“Syracuse is better than Asheville, their players are better,” he told Yahoo Sports as he stood in the locker room. “But tonight we were the better team. We played better. We got to the loose balls. And we deserved to win the game.”

So much is clearly wrong with Syracuse going into this tournament and it doesn’t even have to do with Bernie Fine or reports of ignored positive drug tests. The loss of center Fab Melo – he was declared ineligible this week – seems to hurt more than many believed it would. Without him, the Orange are vulnerable in the middle, a fact exposed in the way Asheville players repeatedly drove to the basket and either challenged the rim or kicked the ball outside for open 3-pointers.

Syracuse’s third-round opponent, Kansas State, isn’t as gifted a shooting team as the Bulldogs, but it might be more rugged and physical. Nobody makes pretty teams look uglier than Kansas State. And Syracuse, having barely survived what would have been the greatest upset in tournament history, looks ill-prepared to get to the Sweet 16 let alone the Final Four.

Yet this is what Coach Jim Boeheim had to say:

“That’s why they make scoreboards.”

As in Syracuse might have looked awful, and tiny Asheville nearly doomed it to an awful place in history, but those Asheville players can just stay quiet because after all: Scoreboard!

Still, this day had nothing to do with Syracuse. This was about unheralded and unknown Asheville, who had been handed a lousy 16th seed despite returning several players from a team that played well in a first-round loss in last year’s tournament.

The Asheville players had been dreaming about this game from the moment their destination was announced last Sunday. They practiced for Syracuse expecting to beat Syracuse. They knew well the awful truth of their seed – that no one holding it had won an NCAA game, that the closest to do so was Princeton, which came within a point of knocking off Georgetown in 1989. And they convinced themselves they were going to do it.

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Brandon Triche appeared to knock the ball out of play on a controversial late call that went Syracuse's way.
(Getty Images)

“We were going to re-write the history books,” said guard Matt Dickey.

After the game, as the players gathered in the locker room, school officials lingered in the corridor, irate over the officials’ calls that they believed would have given Asheville at least two more possessions and possibly erased four points from the scoreboard.

“Reggie Miller would have a lot to say about the way the refereeing went down,” one Asheville administrator mumbled loudly, referring to the television commentator for the game.

A few minutes later, the school’s chancellor, Anne Ponder, came into the room, stood before them and said, “I couldn’t have been more proud of you if you had won.”

The players thanked her then slumped back in their chairs.

Told not to say anything about the officiating, they bit on tongues and tried to deliver their message any way they could.

“No comment on that,” forward Quinard Jackson said with a wide smile.

“I really want to say something really bad,” senior guard Chris Stephenson said. “You can put five exclamation points behind my no comment.”

But in the silence of the room they would not weep as many players do when a season has come to an end. Nothing, not the officials’ calls nor Boehieim’s scoreboard crack, would bring tears. They had come too far for that.

“We left it all on the court,” Primm said as he sat before his locker, still in his uniform. “A lot of times you have people who are crying because they could have done more … all of our seniors did everything possible to help their team win.

“What can I cry about?”

On a day when nothing else shined – the officials, Syracuse, Boeheim – it stood as the brightest moment in the darkest place.

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Les Carpenter is a feature writer and columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Les a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, Mar 15, 2012