Wagner, Weber Waltz Into Dance

Dedrick Dye of Wagner College drives to the hoop for a score against St. Francis during the NEC championship game. 3/12/03
Two schools with names near the bottom of the alphabet moved to the top of the list of NCAA tournament qualifiers Wednesday as Wagner College and Weber State earned spots in the NCAA men's basketball tournament.

Wager won the Northeast Conference tournament championship and Weber netted the Big Sky title to increase the list of automatic qualifiers in the field to 14.

A total of 31 teams will automatically qualify for the tournament by virtue of being conference champions. 34 teams will receive at-large bids. The full 65-team field will be announced Sunday.

Wagner 78, St. Francis (NY) 61

For Wagner College's basketball program, the first 899 wins didn't matter much. But the 900th was an entirely different story.

The Seahawks used that landmark victory for a first-ever ticket to the NCAA tournament. They beat equally tiny St. Francis of New York 78-61 on Wednesday night to win the Northeast Conference tournament.

Tucked away in remote Staten Island, the Seahawks are accustomed to riding the ferry to Manhattan and being generally overlooked. Right now, though, they're basking in the glow of this accomplishment.

Their tiny gym was packed with 2,100 fans — including mayor Michael Bloomberg — and the crowd spilled on to the floor to celebrate the victory.

Coach Dereck Whittenburg was soaked in champagne and enjoying every drop as he saluted a team he crafted, one he convinced could make a dream come true.

Twenty years ago, Whittenburg learned that firsthand, when he launched the most famous airball in tournament history. It was a shot Lorenzo Charles converted for the winning basket as North Carolina State won the NCAA championship for coach Jim Valvano.

That team was an underdog. This one was a favorite. The bottom line was both had a dream.

"You can make dreams happen," Whittenburg said. "Jimmy V. taught me that. I took that into coaching with me. I promised these guys they would work hard and go to class."

The Seahawks (21-10) paid attention. They played tough, alert basketball from start to finish, seizing every opportunity, never letting St. Francis threaten.

Whittenburg compared this achievement with the national championship he was a part of two decades ago.

"It's one thing to do it as a player," he said. "This is like a national championship for us, to do it for the first time. We have a team that works hard, believes in each other and made a dream come true."

Weber State 60, Eastern Washington 57

Jermaine Boyette has a warning for whatever team Weber State draws in the opening round of the NCAA tournament.

The point guard who scored 29 points in the Wildcats' 60-57 win Wednesday night over Eastern Washington wants the rest of the field to know just who holds the country's second-longest winning streak.

"Whoever draws us better watch out because we're coming," said Boyette, who had 22 points in the second half. "We want to be a Cinderella team."

Weber State (26-5) won its 17th straight game, second only to Kentucky's 20 in a row, and earned its 15th NCAA appearance. The last time the Wildcats went to the tournament was in 1999, when they shocked North Carolina 76-74 in the opening round.

The loss was the third straight for Eastern Washington (18-12) in the Big Sky championship game. The Eagles' Danny Pariseau missed a desperation 3-pointer at the buzzer that would have sent the game to overtime.

In his final game at the Dee Events Center, Boyette had one of his best performances. The Big Sky's regular-season and tournament MVP scored made his presence felt after missing nearly 10 minutes of the first half with two fouls.

"All I wanted was for my team to hold on," Boyette said. "If we were down by one or three (at halftime), we would be OK."