DAYTON, Ohio (AP)—A couple of right turns, an easy merge onto the highway, then 131 miles of wide-open, two-lane interstate. Getting from Morehead State to Louisville isn’t all that difficult.
Getting the two of them together during the basketball season hasn’t been so tough, either. They used to play every year—sometimes three times a season— while the sport took root in the Kentucky bluegrass, routinely splitting the outcomes.
Lately, not so often. And lately, not so close.
They’ve played a dozen times in the last 52 years, with bigger and brawnier Louisville winning every game by double digits. During that span, the Cardinals won a couple of national basketball championships and became known as a hoops power. Morehead State? Known as the alma mater of former NFL quarterback Phil Simms.
There’s a chance for change.
The Ohio Valley champions played their way into the first round of the NCAA tournament by beating Alabama State in the opener on Tuesday, setting up another game with the top-seeded Cardinals. No top seed has ever lost to a No. 16. No Morehead team has beaten the Cardinals in 52 years.
The gap between the schools seems much longer than the stretch of Interstate 64 that connects them.
“Our kids understand that no 16’s ever beaten a 1,” coach Donnie Tyndall said. “The one thing I have said—and I don’t know how fiery the speech will be tomorrow—but at some point, at some time, there will be a 16 seed beat a 1.”
Will this be the one? It’ll take a near-perfect performance, reminiscent of the one Simms pulled off to win the 1987 Super Bowl for the Giants. And even that might not do it.
The last dozen times they’ve played, Louisville has won by an average of 32 points. There was a 107-71 win in 1993, a 119-61 win in 1995 and a 104-40 win in 2004. When they played at Freedom Hall on Nov. 22, Louisville pulled away to a 79-41 victory even though the Cardinals were a work in progress.
So it’s not like the Eagles don’t know what they’re up against.
“We know their tendencies and the scouting report, and we know what guys like to do,” forward Leon Buchanan said. “We know who their go-to guys are, the best passer and best 3-point shooters.”
They also know that no matter how the game ends, they’ve accomplished a lot just by getting a rematch.
Morehead, a 9,000-student school at the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, bottomed out in 2005-06, when it won only four games. Tyndall played for the Eagles in the early 1990s and was interested in becoming the next coach, but didn’t get much encouragement from his friends.
“I did have some people that I really respect and trust in this profession say, ‘Donnie, are you sure you want to do this? It’s not a job that’s been very successful,”’ he said. “Some people thought it was maybe a little bit of a dead end.”
He embarked on a five-year rebuilding plan, soon discovering why his friends had their reservations. Kenneth Faried, a center who is their top player, had never even heard of the school when it started recruiting him out of New Jersey. He came anyway.
The wins multiplied fast, though none involved games against Louisville. The rebuilding was completed ahead of schedule this season, when the Eagles made the NCAA tournament for the first time in 25 years. Shortly before tip-off to the 58-43 win over Alabama State on Tuesday night in the tournament’s opening game, Simms left a message on Tyndall’s voice mail.
In the jubilant aftermath, he let his players listen to it.
“It was about a minute-and-a-half message, just going on about how proud he was for the university and our team,” Tyndall said.
The players had plenty of their own text and voice messages already clogging their phones. Guard Brandon Shingles had 36 text messages waiting. Everyone else was buried in congratulations as well.
“I had so many missed calls and text messages, I couldn’t even check them and I didn’t reply to all of them the same night,” Buchanan said.
It’s big stuff for a bunch of players who hardly got a sniff from the big schools during recruiting. Faried drew the interest of Rutgers, Seton Hall and Louisville. Forward Maze Stallworth grew up in Elizabethtown, Ky., but got no interest from the state’s two basketball bluebloods.
“I live no more than 20 minutes past Freedom Hall, so I never got recruited by these guys,” Stallworth said. “Being in Kentucky, you always want to play for Louisville or Kentucky. It’s big getting to this point playing against those guys.”
Back in Morehead, it’s as big as it gets.