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Cinderella Stories of March Madness

by Corey Blitzer

031615 ATLANTA: Georgia State coach Ron Hunter and his son, guard R.J. Hunter, share a laugh while meeting with the media at team practice the day after winning the Sun Belt Championship and the coach tore his Achilles during the celebration on Monday, March 16, 2015, in Atlanta. Curtis Compton / ccompton@ajc.com

Once upon a time, there were three little universities that wanted their simple wish of competing in March Madness to be granted. There was the team that most thought should not have even been selected to be in the tournament, there was the team that no one had ever heard of, and last but not least there was a team that counted on its basketball program to bring back the university’s pride. University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), Georgia State University, and University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) have been the three most surprising “cinderella stories” of the 2015 tournament. By winning dramatic games these storied programs have placed their mark on the tournament and have put their universities on the map of college basketball.
Our first Cinderella story takes us to a small university known as Georgia State. The Panthers were making their second appearance of all time in the NCAA tournament. The last coming was in 2001 where they also made a little noise in the big dance. Georgia State has a wonderful story in Ron Hunter and RJ Hunter, a father son combination on the court. With Ron coaching on the sidelines and RJ being a scoring machine, the Panthers were going to be a tough out in this tournament. Not to mention that they had a little bit of experience on their roster with Louisville transfer Kevin Ware. Kevin actually won the National Championship with Louisville in 2013, but he was unable to play in the tournaments final games because of a horrific leg injury. He transferred to Georgia State to be closer to his parents and pursue a better education. Kevin was determined to take Georgia State back to the tournament and get another shot at winning a championship. The panthers willed their way passed Georgia Southern in its conference tournament to clinch a berth to big dance. Unfortunately, while celebrating the win, Ron Hunter came down awkwardly on one of his player’s foot and tore his achilles. The coach was put in a cast and had to sit in a rolly chair on the sidelines. Georgia State drew a tough draw in number 3 seeded Baylor, but giving credit to the Panthers they played smart, and contested with Baylor the whole game. In the games final seconds RJ came up huge knocking down a long three pointer with 2 seconds remaining giving his team 57-56 victory over Baylor. That shot knocked Ron Hunter right out of his chair, amazed that the it actually went in. The clock must have struck midnight as Georgia State ended up losing to Xavier in the 3rd Round, drawing this fairy tale to a close.
The next surprising team of March Madness is the UAB Blazers. UAB has recently had little to cheer for due to the closing of their football program this past winter. The university needed something to lift its spirits, and they were in store for a pretty good treat. The Blazers had not been to the tournament since 2006, and that was all about to change once they solidified their spot in March Madness by shockingly winning their conference tournament. UAB entered the tournament as an 11 seed set to face 3rd seeded Iowa State. UAB came ready to play giving Iowa State trouble right from the start. The game came down to the wire, and Iowa State missed a chance to win the game as regulation expired, giving the 60-59 victory to UAB. The Blazers then went on to face another Cinderella story in UCLA, in which they lost 92-75 ending their season.
Our fairy tale ends with the UCLA Bruins. The Bruins, come Selection Sunday, were sitting on the edge of their seats waiting in much agony to find out if they were picked to participate in the tournament. To much surprise UCLA snuck into the field of 68 capturing an 11 seed. Right away, criticism began from a number of college basketball analysts that the Bruins did not deserve to be in this tournament, and that there were truly better teams in college basketball. That was enough to strike fire in the Bruins’ eyes which willed them to a second round upset victory over 6th seeded SMU. Although the game ended on a controversial call, the Bruins had proved to the selection committee that they were meant to be here. In the 3rd round, the Bruins were matched up against one of the other Cinderella stories UAB. There UCLA ended UAB’S fairy tale season and sent them packing with a convincing 92-75. The Bruins made their second sweet 16 appearance in two years, but their season ended as UCLA lost to 2nd seeded Gonzaga 74-62.
March Madness would not be as exciting if there wasn’t a Cinderella story. This year we saw a team prove to the committee that they really deserved to be in the tournament, a father-son combination that showed what a small university can do, and a team that reinstated pride in its university. From buzzer beaters to outstanding performances, you never know what to expect from these Cinderella teams. We saw UCLA, Georgia State, and UAB make a magical run into the tournament. Hopefully, the Cinderella story continues on and never has to end for these teams. Hopefully in the next couple of years we can see a Cinderella win it all.

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