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Tuesday, Mar 7

   by Larry Ness - 03/07/2006

Three more schools had their tickets stamped last night and will be headed to the Big Dance. NC-Wilmington almost blew a 23-point lead in the second half but eventually beat Hofstra 78-67, to win its fourth CAA title in the last seven years. Both co-league champion George Mason (23-7) and Hofstra (24-6) are hopeful of at-large bids (wouldn't bet on both getting one). Iona won its seventh MAAC tourney (but first since 2001) with an easy 80-61 win over St Peter's.

My free play is on Eastern Washington over Montana at 7:00 ET in college hoops. I'm following my 2-0 sweep in last night's CBB (Toledo in the MAC and Iona in the MAAC) with a lone play tonight, my 20* Horizon Tourney GOY. On a 3-1 run with my coveted 15* plays in the NBA, I 'm releasing a 15* Underdog Shocker tonight!

Gonzaga, the nation's No. 4 team, edged Loyola-Marymount 68-67 to win the WCC when the Lions missed a layup at the buzzer. Marymount was playing in its first conference final since Gathers and Kimble led the Lions to back-to-back WCC titles in 1988 and 1989. For Gonzaga, it was the team's second consecutive "close-call", as the Bulldogs needed overtime to beat San Diego on Sunday (won 96-92).

It marks Gonzaga's seventh WCC title in eight years and will be their eighth straight NCAA appearance. The win was the school's 18th straight this year, tying them with George Washington for the longest current winning streak in the nation. It also marked the school's 40th straight home win, easily the nation's longest streak.

The MAC's first round saw all four home teams win and they'll advance to Thursday's quarterfinals. In the SBC, South Alabama beat Denver and Western Kentucky beat UL-Lafayette.

Tonight's college basketball 'board' features a light seven-game schedule. ESPN will air two title games. The Mid-Continent final at 7:00 ET between Chicago State and Oral Roberts plus the Horizon League title game at 9:00 ET (Butler at Wisconsin-Milwaukee).

ESPN2 airs the SBC championship game at 9:30 ET, as South Alabama takes on Western Kentucky. ESPNU has the Ivy League's final regular season game, Penn at Princeton. Penn has already clinched that league's regular season crown and is going to the NCAA tournament. The Quakers are favored by six points (108 1/2).

Butler has bounced back from two poor seasons (16 and 13 wins) and enters this game at 19-11. However, the Panthers (this year's regular season champs), who made it to last year's Sweet 16, are playing on their home court and are favored by 4 1/2 points with a total of 128 1/2.

South Alabama went 12-3 in the league and enters tonight's SBC title game 23-6. Western Kentucky enters with an identical 23-6 mark, going 12-2 in conference games. These teams met at South Alabama back on Jan 21, with the Hilltoppers winning, 74-73. In tonight's championship game, Western Ky is favored by two points (141 1/2).

Lines are not usually posted on Mid-Continent Conference games but one will be posted later in the day on tonight's final. Also joining the postseason fray tonight are the MEAC, the MWC and the Southland Conference.

In the second-to-last AP poll of the season, U Conn is back at No. 1, after Duke lost twice this past week. Fellow Big East school Villanova, is ranked No. 2. Duke falls to third, with Gonzaga moving up to No. 4, its highest ranking this year. Memphis fell two spots to No. 5, after losing to UAB last Thursday.

Speaking of UAB, the Blazers moved into the poll at No. 24, its first top-25 ranking since 1993-94. Pitt suffered the greatest fall this past week, dropping from No. 8 to No. 15 and Michigan State fell out of the poll (was No. 25), after splitting two games. The Spartans, who were a Final Four team last year, were ranked No. 4 in the preseason poll. The final AP poll will be released next Monday.

Last night in the NBA, the Suns won their 11th straight game (14 of 15), beating the Hornets 101-88. Steve Nash did not play the 4th quarter (sprained ankle) but Phoenix outscored New Orleans 30-9 in the final period to win. It marked the 22nd straight time the Suns have scored at least 100 points.

The Spurs beat the Lakers in LA 103-96, despite Kobe' 43 points. It was the team's seventh straight win and their 20th win in 23 games since losing at home to Detroit back on Jan 12. Despite making just one of 14 FG attempts in the 4th quarter, the Jazz beat the Magic (90-85), sending the Magic to their sixth straight loss and 18th in their last 20 games (6-13-1 ATS).

Tonight's eight-game NBA schedule has Dallas and San Antonio both in action. The Spurs are 47-12, one game ahead of the Mavericks at 46-13 in the Southwest Division.

San Antonio will again play in the Staples Center tonight, this time against the Clippers (10:35 ET). The Clippers are a streaky team. They won nine of 10 from 1/22 through 2/7, then lost six of seven. After a three-game winning streak (allowing an average of just 79 PPG), they enter this game on a two-game losing streak while allowing 105 and 102 points! The Spurs are favored by three points with a total of 183.

Dallas saw its 16-game home winning streak end Sunday against Phoenix but tonight gets a much easier opponent, when the Mavs host the Trailblazers (8:35 ET). Portland is 3-13 since Feb 1 (1-8 ATS since 2/9) and has lost five straight road games (0-5 ATS) by an average of 16 PPG. Dallas, which has beaten Portland eight straight times at home, is favored by 15 1/2 points (190 1/2).

Ness Notes is available by 1:00 ET Monday through Friday. A feature story runs Saturday and Sunday.

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