Tournament Tales: Wally Szczerbiak

While the Cavaliers continue their charge towards the postseason, the collegiate hoops universe is riding the wave of March Madness – with the Sweet 16 tipping off on Thursday night.

Several members of the Cavaliers family have been fortunate enough to play in the NCAA Tournament, and we’ve brought some of their stories to life in Tournament Tales. We’ve gotten the Tourney lowdown from Boobie Gibson and Assistant Coach John Kuester, and even talked a little NIT with Tarence Kinsey.

Today’s tale belongs to Wally Szczerbiak, whose Miami (OH) squad made a memorable run to the Sweet 16 back in 1999.

Entering the Tournament as a 10th-seed after losing to Kent State in the MAC Tournament, Szczerbiak put on one of the great March Madness performances of all-time – dropping 43 of Miami’s 59 points in a first round upset of 7th-seed, Washington – 59-58.

Two days later, Wally and the RedHawks proceeded to knock off Rick Majerus’ 2nd-seeded Utah squad – 66-58. Szczerbiak scored 24 more points as Miami left New Orleans as the NCAA Tournament’s media darlings, even gracing the cover of Sports Illustrated.

In the Sweet Sixteen, despite a 23-point effort from Szczerbiak, the dream ended against the defending National Champion Kentucky Wildcats. But Wally’s heroics will live on in March Madness lore – going on a run most college athletes can only dream about.

The Cavaliers veteran sharpshooter talks about that year’s magical run.

Talk about the time leading up to the Tournament opener against Washington.

Wally Szczerbiak: I was coming off my worst game of the year, in the MAC Championship; we’d lost to Kent State -- 46-41 or something like that. So I was pretty motivated to get back out on the floor. We had a good week of practice and we got an at-large bid. And I was just excited to go out and play again.

Did you know you had it going right away?

Szczerbiak: When I came out, I got off to a good start and everything was flowing that day. The first couple shots went in. And the way they were defending me – I wasn’t used to teams not double- or triple-teaming me like they had done in the MAC. They were pretty much guarding me straight-up. So I got off to a good start and my teammates continued to find me and get me going.

You didn’t have much time to get your bearings after that win. What happened in the second game against Utah?

Szczerbiak: We were just really happy to advance past the first round. But we also had a pretty good overall team. To win in the NCAA Tournament you have to have pretty good players up and down the roster. And the big contribution in that second game against Utah came from a guy named Jason Stewart – who came off the bench and hit three threes for us when we were down 10 or 11 points in the first half. And that got us in the game, got Utah back on their heels and then we carried it through in the second half and took care of business.

Did Utah use a double-team?

Szczerbiak: (laughs) Yeah, I think so. I know Majerus wasn’t happy about his team’s performance. But we were a pretty good team. We matched up well, we played good defense, we had size. We had good players overall and we felt like we were worthy of our accomplishments.

So what was it like in Oxford between the first two games and the Sweet 16?

Szczerbiak: We were like rock stars at the University of Miami of Ohio. I’m telling you, the campus was going crazy. It was fun going to class that week, I remember.

Then you ran into Kentucky …

Szczerbiak: We just ran into a buzzsaw with Kentucky – they were just too long, too big for us. They slapped a zone on us that caused us some problems. I had a good game, but we really couldn’t get anyone else going. It was tough. We just didn’t play one of our better games.

I remember when we played Kentucky in the TWA Dome – it was the biggest Sweet 16 crowd of all-time. I’m sure they’ve surpassed that record by now, but I think it was 36,000 or something crazy.

Despite having a good squad in Miami, did you consider yourselves that year’s Cinderella?

Szczerbiak: That year, there were a lot of Cinderella teams. Murray State. Gonzaga made a deep run that year. But we were – that year, we were a bona fide Cinderella.