PITTSBURGH – When Radford University coach Mike Jones said he wanted his team to enjoy the entire experience of the NCAA tournament, he probably did not have this in mind.
Jones was about to finish his news conference on Wednesday when he broke out into a smile and started laughing.
A “yeah, whoop, whoop, yeah!” bellowed from the back of the interview room.
The Highlanders had officially arrived at the opening round of the East Regional by “bum-rushing” their coach’s biggest spotlight of his career.
“Is that even legal?” Jones said. “Can you interrupt a press conference like that? They’re a bunch of good guys. They like to have fun.”
In Radford’s case, why not? The Highlanders crashed their way into the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2009 in one the most celebrated moments of the selection process.
It’s hard to say how many times redshirt freshman guard Carlik Jones’ buzzer-beating three-point shot that beat Liberty in the championship game of the Big South tournament has been shown.
Needless to say, it made the Big South freshman of the year an instant celebrity on social media.
“It’s been crazy,” Jones said. “A lot of people have texted me, calling to offer congratulations. It’s been nonstop.”
Still, the Big South title only got the Highlanders (23-12) an invitation into the NCAA First Four.
Radford beat LIU Brooklyn, 71-61, on Tuesday in Dayton. The reward for the Highlanders is a date with top-seeded Villanova on Thursday at PPG Paints Arena.
On paper, the Highlanders don’t have a lot of, if any, advantages over the Wildcats (30-4), but Coach Jones said the First Four game did serve as a way to get Radford focused back in on basketball.
“Playing in that game was a chance to get back on the court after a long stretch off,” he said. “We were a little bit rusty, but once we got into it I think that experience really helped our guys.”
A 16th seed has never beaten a No. 1 seed, but when Jones tells his players miracles can happen in this tournament, he speaks from experience.
Jones was an assistant on the 2011 Virginia Commonwealth team that made a run as an 11th seed from a First Four game to the Final Four.
“I’ve certainly shared that story over my seven years” at Radford, said Jones “It didn’t necessarily work with the other six teams, but hopefully it will work with this one.
“A lot of people said [VCU] didn’t even deserve to be in the tournament, but those guys believed. That is the point we’ve tried to get across to this team. Anything is possible if you believe hard enough, work hard enough, and obviously have some things break your way.”