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Even those sports fans who weren’t into college basketball found that last week’s Elite Eight segment of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament heart-stopping at times as close games stimulated by huge rallies were the rule rather than the exception.

Although three of the four No. 1 seeds were still in contention for the upcoming national championship going into Thursday’s Elite Eight, just one—Virginia—is still alive for Saturday’s semifinal round of the Final Four.

The North Carolina Tar Heels, who is usually among the Final Four survivors year-in and year-out, were the first to go as they ran into a buzz-saw from Auburn 97-80 in the Sweet Sixteen round.

The Tigers showed the North Carolina blow-out win was no fluke by playing second-seeded Kentucky on even terms in the Midwest Regional finals and then turned on the juice to squash the Wildcats 77-71.

The overtime victory set a school record for wins (33) and earned Auburn its first trip to the Final Four. The last time Auburn only reached the Elite Eight was 33 years ago.

Closer to home, the third-seeded Texas Tech Red Raiders punched their ticket to this weekend’s big dance by sliding past sentimental favorite Gonzaga 75-69, setting up their Final Four meeting with the winner of Sunday’s East Regional championship game between the top two seeds of the East Regional—Duke and Michigan State.

The Red Raiders reached the Elite Eight a year ago in Head Coach Chris Beard’s second season at the Lubbock school, but not much was expected from them this season because they lost five of their top six scorers, according to the Associated Press.

In fact, a preseason poll had Texas Tech picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 and was one of college basketball’s biggest surprises, sharing the league’s regular-season championship with Kansas State, which ended Kansas’ 14-year dominance in the loop.

Texas Tech used the nation’s most efficient defense to thwart Gonzaga 75-69. “It is real. That defense is real,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few commented after his Bulldogs were bounced from the Elite Eight.

Another team that used defense to be the only No. 1 seed to reach the Final Four was the Virginia Cavaliers, whose technique is to pack the defense into the paint, clogging up the driving lanes and helping the defenders already in place to fill the gaps in the defense.

The Cavaliers, who led the nation in scoring defense at 55 points per game this season, survived an offensive onslaught by Purdue’s Carsen Edwards to earn their first Final Four since 1984 and nipped the Boilermakers 80-75.

Perhaps the most exciting Elite Eight game belonged to the matchup between Duke and Michigan State. It was a great chess match between two of the game’s most prominent college coaches—the Blue Devils’ Mike Krzyzewski and the Spartan’s Mike Izzo.

The score rocked back and forth throughout the game right up to the final buzzer as super freshman Zion Williamson matched talent with the Spartan’s Cassius Winston. Folks who missed this game probably will never see Williamson again as a collegian as he’s expected to opt for the NBA soon.

The game came down to Michigan State leading by two points but fouling Duke’s other freshman star R.J. Barrett, who missed the first free throw but made the second one which he was trying to miss and give his team a chance to tip in the rebound.

Michigan State hung on for the 68-67 win which was just the second time in 13 meeting that Izzo outsmarted Coach K.

The Final Four is set as No. 5 Auburn (30-9) meets No. 1 Virginia Saturday at 5:09 p.m. followed by No. 3 Texas Tech (30-6) against No. 2 Michigan State (32-6).                          

My heart will be rooting for Texas Tech but my wallet will probably favor Michigan State who will take down Virginia Monday night.

KWICKIES…The Houston Astros started 2019 much like they began those horrible seasons when they lost more than 100 games. After slapping three home runs and knocking off Tampa Bay 5-l in their season opener Thursday, their bats went dead and they lost to the Rays 4-2, 3-1 and 3-1. The Astros went to Arlington to play a three-game series against the Texas Rangers that began Monday with a paltry team batting average of .213.

A series of more interest to me was the one between Bucknell and Army last weekend in which the Black Knights of West Point swept a doubleheader 4-3 and 16-9 but then on Sunday gave up five runs in the bottom of the ninth inning and lost to the hosts 7-6. The significance of the series was that my grandson, Logan Smith, picked up the mound victory in relief in Saturday’s nightcap in the Patriot Conference. Army steps out of the conference today to host Cornell at West Point’s Abner Doubleday Field.

Good news for Dallas Cowboys’ fans is that Hall of Honor wide receiver Michael Irvin’s tests for cancer came up negative, according to ESPN Monday.

And while on the subject, Orangeites are praying for former mayor and businessman Dan Mohon to beat his current bout with cancer.

JUST BETWEEN US…It reminded me of old times Saturday watching Tiger Woods play his match with Lucas Bjerregaard in the Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin. Tiger seemed to have everything in hand with a two-hole lead when the Dane went eagle, birdie to tie the match and then made some clutch shots to defeat the 43-year-old favorite. During that match, another match was getting plenty of attention between Matt Kuchar and Sergio Garcia, who has been known to display his temper on the links. Garcia missed a short putt and then back-handed the ball from three inches and it somehow rolled around the hole and came out BEFORE Kuchar could concede the hole. Kuchar ended up beating the hot-headed Spaniard by a single hole and went on to beat Bjerregaard Sunday morning in the semifinal round. But Kuchar failed to win a hole in the championship match against Kevin Kisner who scored a 3-2 victory.