Published April 2nd, 2021 at 1:00 PM
The Final Four of the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship tips off Saturday in Indianapolis, Indiana.
This weekend’s semifinal round of March Madness, followed by Monday’s championship game, will cap three weeks of mayhem in college basketball’s season-ending 68-team tournament.
After last year’s tournament cancellation due to COVID-19, the 2021 edition of March Madness provided more upsets than ever before. There have been a record 14 wins by teams seeded at least five spots lower than a typically favored opponent.
One team in the thick of the madness was the No. 14 seed Abilene Christian University Wildcats, a scrappy group of bracket busters with multiple ties to the Kansas City area.
Each year, 68 basketball programs have their tickets punched to the Big Dance. Not long into this year’s much-anticipated selection Sunday, ACU learned its fate — a matchup against No. 3 Texas Longhorns.
One of the longest teams in all of college hoops and a popular pick to make it to the Final Four, Texas was favored to win the first-round game by 8.5 points in most sportsbooks.
“We knew it was going to be hard for us to win,” said ACU guard and Hogan Preparatory Academy alumni Damien Daniels. “This time it was just like we are here and we are trying to win a game or two. We are trying to make some noise.”
Abilene Christian’s week of preparation was supplemented with quiet confidence. Daniels’ Wildcats knew there was a chance.
With previous NCAA Tournament experience on the roster, and a defense that forced an incredible 19.9 turnovers a game this season, the glass slipper’s fit felt inevitable. And ACU had its game plan.
“No one really guards like us around the country. Or, very few people who guard like us in the country,” Daniels said.
“It was just causing havoc.”
The plan was clear from the opening tip. Havoc that will surely haunt fans of the Longhorns resulted in 23 forced turnovers and 11 steals for the Wildcats. Five of them were by the 5 feet 7 inches tall, waterbug-quick Daniels.
Forty minutes of remarkable defense, intensity, solid free throw shooting and a shared scoring effort, led by Overland Park native and Blue Valley Northwest High School grad Joe Pleasant, lifted the No. 14 seed past the Longhorns by a final score of 53-52.
The buzzer sounded and Abilene Christian had its first-ever NCAA Tournament win. The upset was a lucrative victory for the private university and will certainly be a lasting memory for Daniels.
“After the game my phone was just ringing, it was so crazy,” Daniels said. “People from middle school, kids from all over the world were DMing me on Instagram saying I’m inspiring them and stuff like that. It was a great feeling.”
Abilene Christian’s tournament run came to a close just two days later in a second-round loss to No. 11 seed UCLA. The Bruins have since strung together a magical tourney of their own. After beating ACU by 20, UCLA went on to upset both No. 2 Alabama and No. 1 Michigan and now have a date with the undefeated Gonzaga Bulldogs in the Final Four.
Heading home, Daniels’ phone rang. It was Hogan Prep basketball coach Rob Heitman calling to wish his former point guard congratulations on the tournament run.
If anyone saw ACU’s first-round upset coming, it was Heitman.
The Hogan head coach learned about Daniels as a seventh grader. True to his NCAA Tournament performance, Heitman discovered Daniels much like basketball fans around the world did this March. The Wildcats just so happen to embody the same “junkyard dog” mantra that was once printed on Hogan Prep practice jerseys.
“I was told then that this kid had always played up,” Heitman said. “When he was in fourth grade, he was playing against fifth and sixth graders, when he was in second grade, he was playing against older kids. It stuck out because he is that undersized and playing against guys that are three or four years older. That says a lot.”
Coach Heitman says it’s cliche, but Daniels is “a dog.” In his four years at Hogan Prep, Daniels improved his three point shooting significantly, sewed stories of improbable comebacks and serious speed into Hogan hoops lore and won a Missouri State Championship.
Following his senior season, Daniels was discovered by ACU assistant coach Antonio Bostic, a graduate of Shawnee Mission West High School.
A lifetime of watching Kansas City-area players take their talents to the next level prepared Daniels for what came next. He received and accepted his sole Division I offer from Abilene Christian and the rest is history.
“You couldn’t pick a better representative to be a part of college basketball and the NCAA Tournament coming from Hogan Prep, given our lack of resources and stuff like that,” Heitman said. “Damien certainly embodies some of the hardships that we as a school have had to overcome. To see him be that successful makes it that much sweeter for anyone with ties to Hogan Prep.”
Daniels takes pride in his path.
“I feel like I’m just showing kids that you really don’t have to go to the Blue Valleys, even to the Mieges to be recruited and be on the big stage,” Daniels said. “You can do it in the inner city, it doesn’t matter, you can do it from anywhere.”