The 2011 Richmond Spiders, a relatively unexperienced tournament team, were huddled up in the tunnel leading to the court at the Alamodome in San Antonio. Guys were chanting, players were taking their turn dancing in the circle as Richmond was set to warm-up for only the second Sweet Sixteen game in their school’s history.
Their opponent was the seasoned Kansas Jayhawks, who were the top-seeded team in the South Region and making their fourth Sweet Sixteen appearance in five years.
As Spiders’ head coach Chris Mooney described to NBC Sports Washington: "For as giant as the place is, they have one tunnel to go in and out to the locker room.”
Kansas players wanted to scoot by to take the court and then some light shoving ensued.
“It was just a pregame little scuffle, trash-talking,” Richmond’s Dairen Brothers told NBC Sports Washington. “We were already ready to come out and they were coming in behind us. Everybody is in the back jumping around, and the other team wants to come in and try and be tough.”
The skirmish didn’t translate to the game. Led by twins Marcus and Markieff Morris, the Jayhawks did what No. 1 seeds do and took care of business against the No. 12 seed Spiders. Kansas jumped out to an early advantage with some hot shooters and didn’t look back.
“I’m sure if anything [the scuffle] probably helped Kansas, because they’re used to being in that situation, playing on that second weekend and maybe this was a little extra motivation to concentrate, but I think it was probably irrelevant,” Mooney said when asked if either team gained an edge from the altercation.
You see, Richmond wasn't used to that situation. The Spiders aren’t a constant presence in the NCAA Tournament. The Spiders have only had their name called nine times on Selection Sunday in the past 40 years.
But just because Richmond doesn’t get to wear their dancing shoes often, doesn’t mean that other programs aren’t familiar with their pedigree. Of those nine appearances, five of them had Richmond advancing past the first round. All five being upsets.
The Richmond program is one of the noted ‘giant-killers’ in March Madness. They made history in 1991 by becoming the first team to ever receive a No. 15 seed and advance to the second round. The Spiders have secured wins over No. 2, 3, 4 and 5 seeds while always being seeded in the bottom half of the bracket. Beating a No. 1 seed was the only upset left for the program to accomplish.
That year Richmond won their first, and to this day only, Atlantic 10 Tournament title. A late-season touch football game after a loss to Temple sparked a nine-game winning streak that would run into the NCAAs.
“[Touch football] was just a way to exhale,” Mooney said describing the stress of being on the bubble. “When you’re on that bubble, especially for a team in the A-10 because you have so many opportunities in the ACC, if you lose a game it’s no big deal. Anyway, it was just a way to exhale, relax and say ‘Hey, let’s enjoy this.’”
On Selection Sunday they were able to enjoy it from Philadelphia's famed Chickie's and Pete's sports restaurant when knew their ticket was punched after balancing on the bubble all season. Vanderbilt was the fifth seed as their opponent and ripe for an upset.
That season they weren’t just upset-minded. Richmond wanted to progress to a point of acceptance.
“We were kind of more trying to say, look we’re not quite as much the giant killers as we’re on equal footing,” Mooney said. “We were trying to embrace who we were at that moment.”
That was evident with how they handled their 12 vs. 5 upset over the Commodores. Kevin Anderson, the team’s second-leading scorer, went off against the Vanderbilt zone in the second half. He scored 16 of his 25 points in the final 20 minutes of a 69-66 win. Postgame there was no gigantic celebration like the one elsewhere when No. 13 Morehead State upended No. 4 Louisville just before tip-off. There was simply a handshake line and the Spiders moved on.
The win propelled Richmond to one of the rarest second-round matchups in college basketball: The No. 12 vs. No. 13 seed game. They had a chance at an elusive second win of the tournament for the first time since 1988.
“We had that confidence. Once you win a game in the NCAA Tournament, it gives you a confidence boost,” Brothers said. “Everybody’s feeling good, your shots are going in, your conditioning level is up, you’re energetic.”
“The coaches met in my room to start watching tape of Morehead State and I can just remember midway through the second game thinking ‘You know, it’s really going to be hard for Morehead State to beat us,’” Mooney said.
The Spiders handled the Kenneth Faired-led Eagles in what would be the final game of his collegiate career. A week later the team lost to Kansas, capping their run and matching the furthest the program has gone in March.
Did that second victory prove the Spiders were on equal footing as the sport's very best teams? Probably not. Since then Richmond has been looking for an opportunity just to get back in the field. But had the tournament transpired this season, and not been canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic, there were good odds that the streak would have been broken.
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