Playing without ineligible center Fab Melo, the Orangemen rallied to avoid becoming the first top seed to lose to a No. 16.
PITTSBURGH — Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said before the NCAA tournament that he was shocked to see the Big South champion, North Carolina-Asheville, as a No. 16 seed.
On Thursday, Boeheim nearly experienced a shock of a different kind in the East regional.
Playing without ineligible center Fab Melo, the Orangemen tiptoed along the precipice of history, rallying for a 72-65 victory over Asheville to narrowly avoid becoming the first top seed to lose to a No. 16. Top seeds are 109-0 since the tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985.
The Orange (32-2) will play eighth-seeded Kansas State on Saturday.
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Two calls by the officials had the sellout crowd of 18,927 at Concol Energy Center — except those wearing orange — booing throughout the final minute, but it didn’t matter.
“I don’t think luck had anything to do with this game today,” Boeheim said, “and I think the better team won.”
The Orange trailed with just over 6 minutes to play.
“We gave it everything we had,” said Asheville coach Eddie Biedenbach.
Syracuse had already made negative history in the tournament in 1991 as the first No. 2 seed to fall to a 15 in a 73-69 loss to Richmond.
North Carolina-Asheville (24-10) was led by J.P. Primm’s 18 points. The Bulldogs led 34-30 at halftime — the third 16th seed to do that — but the Orange took the lead for good with 6:17 left on a turnaround jumper by 6-8 reserve James Southerland, who had 15 points and a season-high eight rebounds.
Two controversial calls in the final 1:20 favored Syracuse. A lane violation resulted in two extra free throws on a 1-and-1 for the Orange, and an out-of-bounds call went their way, too.
Syracuse was without the 7-foot Melo, who was declared ineligible for academic reasons by the school and will miss the tournament.
“The fact that this game was close had nothing — nothing — to do with the center position,” Boeheim said.
No. 8 Kansas State 70, No. 9 Southern Mississippi 64
In Pittsburgh, Southern Mississippi had all the momentum after a Darnell Dodson three-pointer gave the Golden Eagles a 45-40 lead. But Kansas State responded with a 18-6 run.
Rodney McGruder led the Wildcats (22-10) with 30 points and Jordan Henriquez added 15 points and nine rebounds as K-State won its opening NCAA game for the third straight year.
Neil Watson led the Southern Miss (25-9) with 16 points. Dodson, a Kentucky transfer, scored 14, all in the second half.
No. 2 Ohio State 78, No. 15 Loyola, Md., 59
In Pittsburgh, Deshaun Thomas scored a career-high 31 points and grabbed 12 rebounds as the Buckeyes dominated the smaller Greyhounds inside. Jared Sullinger added 12 points and 11 rebounds for Ohio State (28-7), which had a 49-24 rebounding advantage. The Buckeyes play Gonzaga Saturday.
Erik Etherly had 19 points for Loyola (24-9), the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champ which was in the tournament for the first since 1994.
No. 4 Wisconsin 73, No. 13 Montana 49
In Albuquerque, N.M., the Grizzlies’ school-record 14-game win streak was snapped in a beatdown by the Badgers. Montana (25-7) shot just 38 percent. Art Steward scored 18 for the Grizzlies, but top threat Will Cherry was held to nine points on 3-of-14 shooting with no assists.
All-America guard Jordan Taylor had 17 points, six assists and eight rebounds for Wisconsin. Ryan Evans added 18 points and eight rebounds as the Badgers (25-9), who play Vanderbilt Saturday, improved to 10-1 in NCAA tournament openers under coach Bo Ryan.
No. 5 Vanderbilt 79, No. 12 Harvard 70
In Albuquerque, John Jenkins made all six of his late free throws and scored 27 points to help Vanderbilt win “The Brain Bowl.” Vanderbilt (25-10), the SEC’s only private school, won despite not making a field goal over the final 5:22.
Coach Tommy Amaker’s Crimson (26-5) was making its first appearance in the tournament since 1946. Laurent Rivard had 20 points on 6-of-7 three-point shooting, but no other Harvard player shot well.
It was a sweet win for Vanderbilt. The Commodores were upset in tournament openers by Richmond, Murray State and Siena over the last four years.
Jeffery Taylor, who won a state title with Hobbs High School at The Pit, had 15 points for Vandy. Festus Ezeli, grabbed 11 rebounds, blocked four shots and altered many more.