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Bradley validates Valley power

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- They don't look kindly on people climbing into the stands at the Palace of Auburn Hills these days. Something about an ugly incident that occurred here a year ago, involving one Ron Artest. But no one seemed to mind when the Bradley players went into the stands after their NCAA Tournament game Sunday afternoon.

The Braves had just stunned Pittsburgh, 72-66, becoming the first 13th seed in seven years to reach the Sweet 16. When the buzzer sounded, Bradley coach Jim Les told his players they should go over and thank the hundreds of fans who had made the trip from Peoria, Ill., to give them a partisan advantage against their Big East foes.

Les didn't expect them to go this far. Marcellus Somerville, a 6-foot-7 senior and Peoria native, walked across the floor and went right up into the stands. His teammates followed, one by one. They climbed into the crowd, shaking hands and hugging weeping, red-clad fans who had waited years for such a moment.

"It was Coach's idea," said Summerville, who had 18 points. "But it wasn't his idea for us to run up in the stands. It was a great feeling, going up and letting them know how much we appreciate them."

The fans had it coming. It was a great moment for Bradley, which beat two ranked teams here (Kansas and Pitt) and won two games in the NCAAs for the first time since 1955. It was also a glorious weekend for the Missouri Valley Conference, which silenced its critics by advancing two teams -- Bradley and Wichita State -- to the Sweet 16.

The NCAA selection committee was criticized in some quarters for placing a record four Valley teams in the field, even though the normally reliable RPI ratings suggested that as many six MVC teams deserved to go.

"Our conference is really competitive," said Bradley's Lawrence Wright, who had 14 points and nine rebounds off the bench. "That's why we were upset when people said we were overrated. By us and Wichita getting this far, we've proved we're one of the best conferences in the nation."

The Bradley players wouldn't point fingers at individual critics. "Nope. We've been told to stay away from that," Somerville said.

That's OK, fellas. I'll do the honors. Take that, Billy Packer and Jim Nantz, you sorry shills. What do you think of the Valley now? And how about George Mason of the Colonial, which beat two teams from last year's Final Four -- North Carolina and Michigan State -- to earn a date with Wichita State in the Sweet 16?

Packer admitted he hadn't seen the Valley teams play. But based on their history in the NCAAs, he felt the MVC wasn't worthy of four spots in an event whose main purpose, apparently, is to make more money for the mighty BCS leagues.

Well, it's too bad Packer couldn't have witnessed this Bradley team up close. That's no 13th seed. Physically, it was every bit the equal of the No. 5 seed Panthers of the Big East. The Braves have a 7-foot center, Patrick O'Bryant, who will play in the NBA one day. Somerville is a potential pro. Wright has a 44-inch vertical leap.

And to think, Bradley tied for fifth in the Valley in the regular-season standings. If that's a fifth-place team, they should redefine what it means to be a mid-major.

Bradley is no fluke. It held Pittsburgh without a field goal for more than eight minutes to start the game. It shadowed Pitt's star guard, Carl Krauser, forcing him into six turnovers and 1-for-6 shooting from three-point range. The Braves also made eight straight free throws in the final minute.

That's no Cinderella story. It's the testimony of a team that was underseeded and determined to prove it to the skeptics. No one is going to take the Braves or their league lightly now. In fact, it wouldn't be a total shock if one of these mid-majors exacted the ultimate revenge -- by reaching the Final Four.

e-mail: jsullivan@buffnews.com

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