WASHINGTON (AP) -It was the sound from the stands, not so much the numbers on the scoreboard, that got Belmont coach Rick Byrd's attention.
His 15th-seeded Bruins were leading Mike Krzyzewski's No. 2 Duke late in their NCAA tournament first-round game - yes, you read that correctly - yet Byrd wasn't so much thinking about the possibility of winning.
What mesmerized him was the roar he heard when Belmont nosed ahead in the second half.
``That was really the most exhilarating feeling that I've ever had coaching. That's when I thought we were going to go all the way,'' said Byrd, whose team was routed by UCLA and Georgetown in its other NCAA appearances. ``At first, you hope to be competitive. Then you hope, 'Don't beat us by 20.' And that never really happened. It became like a regular-season Atlantic Sun game, really.''
Really?
Alas, in the end, it was the school from the Atlantic Coast Conference - the team with the three national championships, not the former NAIA member with three NCAA tournament games to its credit - that pulled the game out.
Duke needed every last one of Gerald Henderson's 21 points, including the go-ahead basket with 11.9 seconds left, and one key steal from DeMarcus Nelson to barely avert what would have been a monumental upset, edging Belmont 71-70 in the West Regional on Thursday night.
``The last two or three minutes, I was sitting there thinking, 'We're really in this game.' We were so close to winning,'' Belmont's Henry Harris said. ``There's a bit of amazement in your brain, just sitting there: 'Wow!'''
Duke did something it couldn't do a year ago - win its NCAA opener - and advanced to a matchup Saturday against No. 7 West Virginia, a 75-65 winner against Arizona. The Wildcats' 24th consecutive trip to the NCAA tournament was their 10th one-and-done performance in that span, and they cleared out without bothering to show up for the postgame news conference.
In Thursday's other first-round West Regional games in the nation's capital, No. 3-seeded Xavier beat No. 14 Georgia 73-61, and No. 6 Purdue defeated No. 11 Baylor 90-79. Xavier meets Purdue on Saturday.
On Day 1 of March Madness, there was little in the way of surprises. But Belmont came close to pulling off one of the biggest in college basketball history. After all, only four times have a No. 15 knocked off a No. 2. Plus, to put it plainly, this was Duke vs. Belmont.
The teams' body language at timeouts was telling.
Even when Belmont was trailing, its players skipped to the sideline and were greeted by high-fives, pats on the back and yells of encouragement. Even when Duke was ahead, its players never seemed too thrilled, trudging over slowly, some looking at the floor.
``We told our players, 'You've got a free chance at the lottery. They're giving you a chance to beat Duke. What's better than that?''' Byrd said. ``We talked a lot about how we've got a chance to have the greatest moment in our athletic lives.''
Then he paused for a moment, pondering the evening's events.
``And I'm not sure,'' Byrd continued, ``we didn't have the greatest moment in our athletic lives tonight.''
When Justin Hare made two free throws with 2:02 left in the game, Belmont held the lead - yep, the lead! - at 70-69. But the Bruins would not score again.
Still, it did occur to the Blue Devils that the seemingly impossible might somehow suddenly be possible.
``We wouldn't be human if it didn't,'' Duke guard Jon Scheyer said. ``We knew the situation. There was so much pressure on us. Pressure to win. Ninety percent of the building wanted us to lose.''
But Henderson made his late bucket to restore order, and Hare missed a last-second 3-point attempt, allowing Duke (28-5) to snap a two-game tournament losing streak. Next up is West Virginia (25-10), which tied a season high by making 11 3-pointers against Arizona.
``It was one of those nights when you thought it was going off and then you made it,'' said Darris Nichols, who went 4-for-7 on 3s. ``I remember shooting one shot, I thought it was off - it looked like an air ball. It still went in.''
Xavier 73, Georgia 61, West Region
Xavier, meanwhile, ended the run of those underDawgs from Georgia, a team that wore down after its remarkable three-wins-in-30-hours surge to the SEC tournament title.
``Fatigue,'' Xavier point guard Drew Lavender said, ``finally caught them.''
The Musketeers (28-6) trailed by 11 in the second half but conjured up a 22-6 run to come back and tie the school record for victories in a season.
Like Belmont and Baylor, Georgia (17-17) left with heads held high, knowing it was pretty amazing that its season lasted as long as it did.
``We made a special run,'' senior guard Sundiata Gaines said.
Purdue 90, Baylor 79, West Region
Purdue won by adjusting to - make that embracing - Baylor's up-and-down style of play. The Boilermakers usually show caution on the offensive end but scrapped their half-court approach Thursday.
``They're a very uptempo team, and they create a lot of possessions with that style. So there were more possessions today, which gave us a lot of shot,'' freshman Scott Martin said.
``And,'' Martin noted, ``we made a lot of shots.''
That they did. The Boilermakers sank a season-best 33 field goals, resulting in a season-high point total.
Baylor is five years removed from as bad as things can get: a murder of a player by a former teammate. There were other sordid events that led to the resignations of the coach and athletic director.
So this year's at-large bid to the tournament represented something of a renaissance. And even though Baylor failed to end its 58-year winless drought in the NCAAs, that didn't necessarily matter.
``It wasn't the performance that we wanted, but at the same time I think this team has accomplished a tremendous amount this year,'' coach Scott Drew said. ``It's something that hopefully they can be proud of the rest of their lives.''
West Virginia 75, Arizona 65, West Region
West Virginia (25-10) took the lead for good on a 3-pointer by Ruoff with 17:43 left, and another jumper by Rouff from beyond the arc made it 48-39. After Arizona closed to 60-59, two 3-pointers by Darris Nichols and another by Ruoff sealed the victory.
Chase Budinger led Arizona (19-15) with 23 points, and Jordan Hill had 16 points and 12 rebounds.
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