CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The reality of advancing this far in the NCAA men’s basketball championships — of facing the team the Washington State Cougars will face tonight in the Sweet 16 — hit forward Daven Harmeling on Wednesday.
As he trotted on to the floor at Bobcats Arena for a shootaround, a row of North Carolina supporters loudly jeered the Cougars, repeating the long list of opponents the Tar Heels have steamrolled this season.
By their calculation, this game would be over before it started.
“They were laughing at us as we walked on,” Harmeling said. “Peoples’ heads were shaking like, ‘You have no chance.’ Even the security guy, his head was shaking like, ‘Good luck, bring your running shoes.’
“I know they look at us as some junior high kids compared to them.”
Truth is, only men survive to this point, and the underdog Cougars and the nation’s No. 1 team, North Carolina, square off today in the East Regional semifinals at 4:27 p.m. PDT.
The winner meets the Tennessee-Louisville survivor on Saturday for the right to go to the Final Four in San Antonio.
If WSU’s players somehow don’t know at this point what they’re in for — hostile treatment, and a supremely talented team playing just two hours from its campus in Chapel Hill, N.C. — at least coach Tony Bennett does.
“I understand. I played for the Hornets. I lived in Charlotte for three years in the mid-1990s, and I know this is a pro-Carolina crowd, and that we’re playing the No. 1 seed,” Bennett said. “It’s a great challenge for our system, what we believe in, going against a team of this talent (level). I think it’s what our guys wanted.”
If so, they got it.
On Tuesday, WSU’s charter flight arrived at Charlotte/Douglas International Airport late in the afternoon. Right away, players got a reminder of where they were.
“One of the guys at the airport had a blue (North Carolina) shirt on, unloading the stuff for us,” guard Kyle Weaver said. “I had to look in my suitcase to make sure my jersey was still red.”
After the initial wave of “Pack Your Lunch, You’re Going Home” type comments hit Wednesday, insults gave way to curiosity, and the stream of Tar Heels followers sat down to observe their round of 16 opponent.
“I felt those eyes,” Weaver said. “With people not being familiar with us, it may be a good thing.”
They ran through dribbling drills, shooting games. WSU assistant Matt Woodley attempted to spruce up a casual 5-on-5 drill by screaming to Harmeling, “Ball pressure.”
Finally, the pageantry was over, and WSU left in the same manner it arrived — quietly confident.
“We can’t be all stressed by them, just because they’re the name,” guard Derrick Low said. “This is basketball, and it’s going to be competition. To play them, we mean business. Whether we win or lose, we’ll go out there fighting.”
Reminded again about being the ultimate underdog, being given no chance to withstand a knockout scoring spree by the Tar Heels, even informed that some of his hometown media had booked return flights for Friday, Low shrugged his shoulders.
“That’s the story of Washington State. People said we were going to lose to Winthrop (in the first round of the tournament). People said we were going to lose to Notre Dame (in the second round). People said we wouldn’t do good in the Pac-10,” Low said. “Despite what people said, we played our game, and it’s got us here where we are now.”