Creighton assistant lived the 15-over-2 dream

Derek Samson

GREENSBORO, N.C. – Creighton assistant Steve Merfeld's March Madness celebrity status finally might fade.

For the past 11 years, Merfeld was the face of the 15 seeds in the NCAA tourney. When his 15th-seeded Hampton Pirates stunned second-seeded Iowa State in Boise, Idaho, in 2001, his celebration – lifted into the air by Pirates sub David Johnson, legs kicking and arms waving wildly – cemented his place in NCAA tournament lore forever.

Friday, two No. 15 seeds were inducted into a club of which Merfeld seemed to serve as spokesman.

Norfolk State upset Missouri in Omaha; a little less than three hours later, Lehigh shocked Duke in the biggest of all No. 15-seed triumphs. Friday's 15s join an elite group that has Merfeld's Hampton squad (2001 over Iowa State), Coppin State (1997 over South Carolina), Santa Clara (1993 over Arizona) and Richmond (1991 over Syracuse).

Merfeld welcomes the two new members.

[Giant-killer: No. 15 seed Norfolk takes down Missouri]

"It's cool. The buck has been passed. Now it's theirs," Merfeld said Saturday after Creighton's practice at Greensboro Coliseum, the same building in which Lehigh stunned Duke on Friday night. "When the tournament rolls around next year and there are four 15 seeds, the coaches will call those guys and not me. The media for those teams will call those guys and not me.

"That's what they get to look forward to and it's an experience that no one can ever take from them."

Merfeld watched the end of Norfolk State's upset at the arena following Creighton's victory over Alabama. Later Friday night, he and the Creighton coaching staff were watching game film in a hotel room when a family member stormed in and said they needed to flip over to the Duke-Lehigh game.

Another No. 2 was about to go down.

[Another No. 2 stunner: Lehigh upsets Duke in NCAA tournament]

"I didn't see the whole game, but what I did see was two extremely confident teams," he said. "It reminded me of my guys a lot. … My group was very mature and they weren't satisfied [with getting to the NCAAs]. That's why we were able to win. And that's why these two teams won, in my estimation, because they expected to win."

Hampton's upset was indeed a classic. Tarvis Williams scored with 6.9 seconds left, putting Hampton up 58-57 and finishing off a 14-2 Pirates run. Iowa State star Jamaal Tinsley went coast to coast, but his layup rolled off the rim as time expired. That set off a crazy celebration in Boise, capped by Merfeld's mid-air dance.

The scene gets played repeatedly every March, much to the delight of Merfeld's two children who have never seen their dad "losing his mind" like that, he said.

"The crowd was deafening. They were on our side," Merfeld said. " … You always hear about out-of-life experiences. I can remember us making the shot, I remember 6.9 seconds on the clock, I remember telling our guys to foul, we had a foul to give. Thankfully, they didn't listen. I remember Tinsley getting to the rim. The horn wasn't working, so they were using one of those foghorns. I remember a different-sounding horn.

"And then I don't remember anything until David Johnson had me. I remember that like it was yesterday, him saying, 'I got you, Coach. I got you, Coach. I got you, Coach.' If he wouldn't have grabbed me, I might still be running."

[Related: McDermotts – star Doug and coach Greg – lead Creighton against UNC]

Merfeld's advice for Lehigh coach Brett Reed and Norfolk State coach Anthony Evans is to be selective with media requests and try not to let the attention engulf the team. All four previous No. 15 winners lost their following game.

But even if Norfolk State and Lehigh follow that pattern, nothing can take away their membership to a small club that Merfeld knows will bring them endless attention – at least until someone else can top it.

"It's really surprising to me that it's taken 11 years for that to happen again because the parity in college basketball has gotten closer and closer," Merfeld said. "When that happened to us, I said in the next five years, a [No. 1 seed] is going to lose to the 16. Unfortunately, that hasn't happened.

"But it's going to."

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