TAMPA — The final outcome, with fourth-seeded Kentucky hitting a runner with two seconds left to escape, wasn't what Princeton center Brendan Connolly had hoped for, but the chance to play near his mother's hometown was something special, regardless.
"This was absolutely wonderful," Connolly said. "That was the city I was hoping for. This was really special playing in front of my family."
Connolly's mother, Cindy, a St. Petersburg native, died in 2003 after a long battle with breast cancer. While Connolly was born and raised in Tennessee, much of his family still lives in the area; there's a recreation center in St. Petersburg named for his grandfather, J.W. Cate, a former city councilman.
Connelly had all kinds of family in the stands Thursday: his father Patrick, stepmother Diane, three siblings and even aunts and cousins. He finished with four points, just above his season average of 3.1, and though the loss stung, the way Princeton played, hanging with Kentucky enough that the score was tied with seconds left, gave him a memory for a lifetime.
"We believed in ourselves the whole time," he said. "We were in a lot of tight games like this, from lesser-known teams to Kentucky, and we never stopped believing. We almost did something special. That doesn't sound as nice as doing something special, but I enjoyed playing this game."
Connelly is only a sophomore, so he's excited about Princeton's basketball future. When he was recruited to the Tigers, they were 6-23, but 25-7 and an Ivy League championship is still something to build on.
"There was a big buzz around campus, all my friends checking in and saying good luck," he said. "All these guys, we had a great atmosphere in the locker room, wherever we go. Everything Coach (Sydney Johnson) told me has pretty much come true. He said by the time you're here, we can contend. He didn't say much about NCAA. He was just talking about Ivy League. I think we're there, but we have a lot of work to do. I think we can continue to do special things."
MOST ARE QUITE NORMAL: Asked about the passion of his fan base, Kentucky coach John Calipari said there are some that hold their breath with each shot, but most have a healthy level of interest in the team.
"They're the greatest fans," he said. "You have a small minority that are absolutely off the cliff … I'm talking about a small minority. Our fans are the greatest. They're into it."
Despite having Kentucky in the early session, the announced attendance was 14,835, well short of the St. Pete Times Forum's 20,000 capacity and down slightly from the daytime session when the tournament was last in Tampa in 2008.
ALMOST A TRIPLE: Florida's Chandler Parsons nearly pulled off a triple double, which is rare in the NCAA Tournament. The last one came from Kansas' Cole Aldrich against Dayton in 2009, and there are impressive names among those who have pulled it off: Cincinnati's Oscar Robertson, Michigan State's Magic Johnson, LSU's Shaquille O'Neal and Marquette's Dwyane Wade.
Parsons watched the final nine minutes from the bench, so he could have gotten the three rebounds he needed to reach 10, along with his 10 points and career-high 10 assists.
GAUCHO HURT: UC Santa Barbara starting forward Jaime Serna broke a bone in his wrist when he fell attempting a rebound in the first few minutes of the game. He made a valiant attempt to return but was unable to finish the game.
"We realized he was hurt as soon as we saw him holding his wrist," UCSB coach Bob Williams said. "He tried to go back in and play, and Jaime is a warrior and wanted to help his team. He apologized after the game because he felt like he hurt the team trying to go back in and play with it. I told him that was a bit silly."
"Jaime is one of our brothers and you never want to see one of your brothers go down in a big game like this," UCSB guard Orlando Johnson said.
BOUNCING BACK: With Thursday's win, the Gators haven't lost back-to-back games since February 2010. This year's team is 7-0 following a loss.
MOST LOPSIDED: UC Santa Barbara has been in the NCAA Tournament only five times, but Thursday's 28-point loss was the most lopsided the Gauchos have taken. Before that, their biggest loss was 17 points to Ohio State last season, with the other three by 10 points or fewer.
Times staff writer Antonya English contributed to this report.