The 2018 NCAA men’s basketball tournament has its first victors—the Radford Highlanders.
Radford, which reached the Big Dance by topping Liberty in the final of the Big South tournament with a Carlik Jones buzzer-beater, beat the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds 71-61 in a battle of No. 16 seeds Tuesday in the opening First Four game in Dayton, Ohio.
The Highlanders have won eight in a row, but that will be put to the ultimate test following this victory when they face the top-seeded Villanova Wildcats in the East Region on Thursday.
Jones led the way and flirted with a triple-double (12 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists), while Ed Polite Jr. added a double-double with 13 points and 13 boards.
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The game was a matchup of differing styles coming in. Radford was No. 346 in the country in tempo, while LIU Brooklyn was No. 39 in Ken Pomeroy’s pace-adjusted metrics.
The outcome figured to come down to which team could establish the pace it was comfortable with. Radford’s defense wasted little time doing just that against the Blackbirds’ offense.
LIU Brooklyn didn’t hesitate to fire three-pointers in an effort to keep the pace rolling and shots coming, but it was a mere 7-of-26 from deep (26.9 percent), and it struggled to break free from Radford’s swarming perimeter defenders.
The Highlanders held the Blackbirds to 28 points in the first half, and leading scorer Joel Hernandez (20.9 points per game) had just eight points for the game on 3-of-11 shooting.
The victors packed the lane whenever Hernandez had the ball, which made it particularly difficult for him to penetrate and create open looks for himself and others.
That, along with foul trouble plaguing second-leading scorer Raiquan Clark (14 points), put the onus on Jashaun Agosto, who responded with 16 points, seven assists and six rebounds in the defeat.
Even with the strong defensive performance, Radford was unable to create much separation with a two-point halftime lead and left the door open for LIU Brooklyn. The Blackbirds were down just two with less than four minutes remaining, but a Travis Fields Jr. three-pointer and Devonnte Holland basket after Hernandez missed a point-blank look to tie it created critical breathing room in the closing stretch.
Fields scored 13 points and also helped save his squad when he combined with Jones to score all the points in a 9-0 run after LIU Brooklyn seized a three-point lead in the second half.
The Highlanders’ attention now turns to their Thursday showdown with Villanova in Pittsburgh.
They lost by 10 at Ohio State and 12 at Vanderbilt earlier this season and have some experience playing under a brighter spotlight than conference play typically affords them, but this will be a different type of challenge.
Villanova won the national title two years ago, is one of the best programs in the country and is unlikely to be the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in NCAA tournament history. Still, the 2017-18 Highlanders will have a March Madness win on their resume regardless of what happens against the mighty Wildcats.