DENVER — Of all the teams that walked into the Pepsi Center on Wednesday to participate in pregame news conferences before their NCAA tournament matchups, only Fresno State had a lower profile in the Denver pod than Little Rock. Folks didn’t even call the Trojans “Little Rock,” even though the school had undergone a massive rebranding effort last summer to make sure the name would stick.
It did not. Road victories over San Diego State and Tulsa did not create the buzz the school had hoped. Four losses, tied with Kansas for fewest in the nation, did not put Little Rock on the map, either. A top-10 defense failed to achieve that goal, too.
Only Josh Hagins, who scored 31 points in his team’s 85-83 double-overtime win over Purdue in the first round, could do that. The senior, a 6-foot-1 afterthought in this tournament, helped Little Rock magnify its profile and its name on the national scene with a game-tying 3-pointer in regulation and big shots in both overtimes.
That’s what the NCAA does best. It enlightens. It turns the unknown into front-page news.
Purdue entered this game with five former players who were top-100 recruits. But Hagins was the best player on the court.
Little Rock’s hustle and late surge helped Chris Beard’s team turn a double-digit deficit into a two-point game with 20.9 seconds to play.
Beard doesn’t have top-100 guys or NBA guys. Little Rock’s head coach just has a bunch of guys. During Wednesday’s news conference, he said every guy on his team has a “story.”
And that story continues with a Little Rock victory and a shot to reach the Sweet 16 if the Trojans defeat Iowa State on Saturday.
“We’ve been working hard,” Hagins said on Wednesday, “just to make Little Rock proud, man.”
A handful of gutsy shots, a relentless defense and the efforts of a young man who elevated an entire school did all that.