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New Mexico State and Belmont ran clinics on how not to seal an upset

The fine margins matter for the underdog, and neither of these teams was able to execute in them.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Maryland vs Belmont
Should have taught your teammates how to make free throws.
John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Imagine, if you will, you’re a double-digit seed in the NCAA tournament. You’re probably a mid-major team that has battled to stay on the right side of the bubble all season. You take a look at your draw on Selection Sunday and... you actually kind of like your matchup. You spend the next three or four days alternating between preparing and talking yourself into it.

All you want is a shot. With fourish minutes left in the game, you’re there. If you execute, maybe catch a break or two, and don’t come up on the wrong end of a horrendous whistle, you can survive and advance.

New Mexico State was down 9 with just over four minutes left, but Auburn turned it over five times in that span, including three times in the last 1:05, to bring the game back into question.

The Aggies weren’t having it though. With 57 seconds left, they turned the ball over. After being gifted with another Auburn TO, they split a pair of FT with 45 seconds left. Another Auburn turnover led to a New Mexico State three, and the game was separated by just a point with 29 seconds left.

NMSU then took 15 precious seconds to foul. Auburn hit them both, then put New Mexico State on the line, where they split again. A little more basketball followed, then New Mexico State had the ball down two. They eschewed a wide-open layup to tie, instead kicking out for a three. Auburn delivered another gift with a foul. NMSU went to the line needing 2-3 to tie and 3-3 to presumptively win.

They got 1-3. BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE!

The last missed FT went out of bounds off of Auburn, giving New Mexico State one last shot to win it, which they airballed.

Likely unaware of that, the Belmont Bruins had Maryland tied at the under-four media timeout. Like New Mexico State, they were a double-digit seed pursuing a big upset. Unlike New Mexico State, I had picked them.

In a game they would end up losing by 2, Belmont went 1-4 from the line and turned the ball over once in the last four minutes. In eight possessions down the stretch, Belmont managed six points but left three of them at the free throw line.

If you want to pull off an upset in March, you’re probably going to have to execute at the fine margins to get it done. Belmont and New Mexico State both came up short, but it wasn’t because they didn’t have the chances.