I fought a lot with my parents growing up, but the one thing we always agreed on was the seriousness of the NCAA Tournament.
That's saying something considering my parents weren't big sports fans. They liked sports and they watched them with me, but they never took them nearly as serious as I did. They had a passing interest, but I was obsessed, especially with Hokie football and the NCAA Tournament. And for whatever reason, they would always call me in sick to school on the first Thursday and Friday of the tournament. In hindsight, it was a pretty cool thing to do.
And in 1998, when the tournament came through town, my mom called me in sick from middle school and went down to The Incomparable Myriad with me to watch the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday, March 13, 1998.
It seemed like Oklahoma City had gotten the short end of the stick in that year's Midwest Regional. Kansas appeared to be the only strong team and was playing in the late game as the No. 1 seed, making tickets for the early afternoon games easy to come by. Within minutes my mom and I had acquired seats only a few rows from the court for what looked like two mismatches: No. 4 Ole Miss vs. No. 13 Valparaiso and No. 5 TCU vs. No. 12 Florida State, who had sneaked into the field of 64.
I was there to see Valpo and TCU. Like I said, I was obsessed with sports, especially the tournament, and I'd been filling out brackets since I knew what basketball was. Valpo was my big first-round upset and Billy Tubbs' TCU squad was the up-start I knew could make the Final Four and win the pool I was in. Well, the pool my dad was in. I had just filled out the bracket.
We didn't realize how good our seats were until we took them. We were about six or seven rows from the court and were seated next to some guys from Valparaiso. Even if our tickets hadn't been for those seats, it would have been pretty easy for us to take them. The Valpo-Ole Miss game was the first of the day and started around 11 a.m. local time. There weren't a lot of people there.
The arena was quiet most of the game as Valpo kept it close. Then, as people began to file in and Valpo was still in it, the crowd became decidedly pro-Valpo. Most of the people in the stands were TCU fans hoping their Horned Frogs, who were sure to beat a struggling FSU team, would get matched up in the second round against the 13-seeded Crusaders.
Most people just remember the shot Bryce Drew hit to win the game for Valpo. I remember the whole sequence of events. Drew missed a shot earlier that seemed to doom the Crusaders and the Valpo guys next to me had pretty much given up. I told them that it was possible for Ole Miss to miss both free throws and then Valpo could get something Laettner-esque down the length of the court. I was still holding out hope my upset pick would come true. They were holding out hope their school could pull off an unlikely upset.
Ole Miss' player ended up missing both those foul shots, but that's not all that had to go in Valpo's favor. Valpo was out of timeouts and when he missed the second shot, the ball still went off a Rebel player and out of bounds, allowing Valpo to set up a play. That play, we found out in later interviews with Bryce and Homer Drew, was "Pacer." Called such because they stole it from the Indiana Pacers if memory serves me correctly.
The initial pass went to mid-court and then fed to Drew who could spot up on the run for three. He hit it and Valpo was immediately thrust into tournament lore. All hell broke loose in our section as the Valpo guys jumped up and down and hugged each other.
Everyone in the arena went insane for two or three minutes after the shot, but there weren't nearly enough people inside the Incomparable to make it very loud. When everything finally settled, the Valpo guys went to the locker room to be with their team and I went to the concession stand to get lunch. Walking by the T-shirt stand, I saw there was only one team that had sold out: Valpo. I was glad I'd bought mine in the first half.
A lot of people forget that Drew's shot was not the end of Valpo's dream. Florida State, as the last team in the tournament often does, dispatched of their first-round opponent TCU to move on to the next round. And as dramatic as the Friday games were in Oklahoma City, the Sunday games were more so. First, Valpo beat FSU in overtime to advance to the Sweet 16. Then Kansas, who looked to have a clear path to the Final Four thanks to all the upsets that had happed in that Midwest Region, fell to Jim Harrick's Rhode Island team.
Valpo put up a fight in that Sweet 16 game, but Rhode Island was too much for it. The Crusaders' dream, and Bryce Drew's career, ended in St. Louis. But not before becoming one of the better Cinderella stories in NCAA history and making one teenager's bracket look pretty smart.
Well, at least for two hours before his Final Four pick lost in the first round.