PITTSBURGH—The noise came from all around me.
Two guys to my left yelled when Radford won the opening tip. My buddy screamed in my ear when Christian Bradford hit a three-pointer to give the Highlanders a 3-0 lead. Everyone was standing. Villanova turned it over and everyone got louder. Bradford—yes, Bradford from Radford—went up for another three. The entire section seemed to be on its tip-toes, craning their necks to see if it’d go in.
It bounced off the rim. Radford committed a foul. People started to sit down. Someone a few rows back said he couldn’t see. We sat down. Villanova’s Phil Booth hit a three. Twenty-eight seconds later, Mikal Bridges hit another one. Villanova wouldn’t trail again. They ended the game on an 87-58 run; the final score could’ve been much worse.
Radford led for just two minutes. They never really had a shot against the top-seeded Wildcats. But it was fun to believe, if only for two minutes.
My friend Johnny Goodtimes (this is a normal name in Philadelphia) is a Radford alum. After Radford won its play-in game, I texted him about his Highlanders joining my Penn Quakers as a 16-seed in the Round of 64. Because he’s a professional trivia host and I do whatever this article is, he asked me if I wanted to road trip out to Pittsburgh for Radford’s game against Villanova, and I said yes. About 36 hours later we were on the Pennsylvania Turnpike discussing what a great rebounder Ed Polite Jr. was for being just 6-foot-5.
I usually root for Villanova despite having gone to Penn, but I’d also enjoy it if the Wildcats lost to a No. 16 seed. Since there was no way I was going to get to Kansas to see my alma mater, why not root on an even-longer shot in person?
We got to Pittsburgh in time to watch Penn on TV. Odds for an upset were high, at least compared to an average 16 seed. One article declared Penn the best No. 16 seed ever; the Quakers were certainly the most-hyped ever. Penn led the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks 21-11, with eight minutes left in the first half. It was nice to pretend Penn might pull off the upset. Kansas won in the end, 76-60.
After the Penn game ended, Johnny and I went to a pregame Radford party across the street from Pittsburgh’s hockey arena. If I was going to be a Radford fan for a day, I wanted to play the part. All the celebrities were there: Radford soccer legend Dante Washington, Big South commissioner Kyle Kallander, Radford president Brian Hemphill, Radford alum Johnny Goodtimes.
It was packed. Almost immediately, I had Highlanders fever. Literally every person I talked to spent at least five minutes recounting the buzzer-beater that won Radford the Big South championship and took them to the Big Dance. My favorite part of the NCAA tournament is trying to convince yourself the lower-seeded team can pull off the upset. Hey, if Lehigh beat Duke once, why can’t Radford beat Villanova?
Johnny was better at convincing himself that Radford was going to win than I had been about Penn. At one point at the pregame party, he debated aloud whether it would be better for the Highlanders to face Alabama or Virginia Tech in the second round. Once we got into the arena, I wanted to get a Radford shirt, but they weren’t selling them. I could buy an Iona shirt, but not Radford. The Highlanders were intentionally slighted! (More rationally, they got in by winning the play-in game, so there likely wasn’t enough time to make non-bootleg quality shirts.)
The time Radford had a chance was short. It was 3-0, Radford, and then five minutes later Villanova was up 22-8. With the way Villanova was shooting, Radford would’ve needed to make every single shot it took to make a comeback. It was over.
But we kept cheering. It was only Radford’s third NCAA tournament appearance, and it became more about celebrating that than hoping for some upset. Johnny’s goals went from rooting for an upset to rooting for Radford to stay within single digits at halftime. Then he was hoping to avoid being down by 20. Later, he hoped the Highlanders would cover the spread. (They didn’t, but it was close.)
When the game was over, the Radford players and coaches walked over to the fan section and got a standing ovation. I’ve seen plenty of teams play worse against Villanova. Radford deserved the accolades.
“Wow,” Johnny said, turning to me. “My arms are sore from clapping and we lost by 26. Thank God it wasn’t close!”