Panthers Move On, Upset Alabama 83-73
By TOM WITHERS
CLEVELAND - Wisconsin-Milwaukee's players didn't madly chase each other around the floor or do anything extraordinary to celebrate the biggest win in school history.
The Panthers are above all that. This was business as usual.
"We expected this," forward Joah Tucker said. "It's wasn't a big surprise for us."
Wisconsin-Milwaukee, whose players were briefly barred from practicing Wednesday when they couldn't produce their student-IDs, pulled off the first stunner of the NCAA tournament, beating Alabama 83-73 on Thursday.
Now everyone knows the Panthers.
Tucker and Ed McCants scored 21 points apiece as Milwaukee (25-5) won its first NCAA tourney game in its second try. Two years ago, the 12th-seeded Panthers nearly knocked off Notre Dame, losing 70-69.
The underrated Horizon League champions finished the job this time, outplaying one of the SEC's top programs and continuing a trend of No. 12s beating No. 5s in March. That first-round matchup has produced an upset in 16 of the past 17 tournaments, the only exception being in 2000.
For 40 minutes, Wisconsin-Milwaukee was the team that looked like it came from the power conference.
"This is an atypical team from the Horizon League," Alabama coach Mark Gottfried said.
Kennedy Winston had 20 points and Ronald Steele 16 for the Crimson Tide (24-8), who had hoped to have another run like a year ago when they made it to the round of eight. But Alabama got outplayed by a lesser-known opponent from a little-known conference playing in a friendly arena.
"This is what March is all about," Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl said. "We represent the rest of that high non-major level of basketball. These guys feel they can play at that level, and they're getting the opportunity to show it in this tournament."
If anyone has a home-court advantage it's the Panthers, who won here three weeks ago and have four straight victories on Cleveland State's home floor.
Milwaukee, which has won 10 straight and 18 of 19, will play the winner of Thursday's second game in the Chicago Regional between fourth-seeded Boston College (24-4) and 13th-seeded Pennsylvania (20-8) on Saturday.
McCants, the Horizon's player of the year whose college career has included stops at Northwestern and a junior college in Texas, arrived at the Wolstein Center with a freshly shaved head.
The senior psychology major did the same thing earlier this season before scoring 26 points in a loss to Kansas.
"It was time to do it again," he said. "I do a lot of silly things, superstitious things. I had a good game against Kansas, so I figured I might as well get back that mindset."
While McCants and Milwaukee were focused, Alabama's players were out of sync from the outset.
Alabama turned the ball over 19 times, twice in the final minute while trying to rally, and the Crimson Tide didn't play their usual defense as the Panthers first bombed away from the outside before going to the basket.
"We were the best defensive team in the SEC," Gottfried said. "We held opponents to 39 percent shooting, but today we weren't very good."
But Milwaukee didn't get flustered, stayed patient on offense and reeled off six straight points, eventually building its lead back to 13 at 74-63 on a 3-pointer from McCants with 2:22 remaining.
Alabama's Jean Felix hit consecutive 3s and Alabama was only down 79-73 with 1:03 left. But Boo Davis made two free throws and McCants got free for a breakaway dunk as the Panthers closed it out.
After the final horn, Pearl, who filled in for an NCAA tournament game in 1981 as Boston College's mascot, walked across midcourt pointing his index fingers at the Panthers' fans, who were sitting almost directly below the school's black-and-gold banner hanging overhead.
"This team just keeps finding ways to win," said Pearl. "The fact that we played well early, never allowed Alabama's talent to ruffle our feathers or get us to lose our poise or confidence."