Featured Stories – March Madness

March Madness Returns to Orlando

Orlando Magic stars and UCF head coach recall memories of past tournaments.

George Diaz

By George Diaz

March Madness is all about the memories.


Good ones. Bad ones. Ones that leave you exhilarated. Ones that crush your soul.


Orlando will get a courtside seat to the emotional roller-coaster when UCF partners with the City of Orlando and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission and hosts the First and Second Rounds of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championship on March 16 and 18 at the Amway Center.


This community wins no matter what. Consider the economic impact, the exposure on national television, and the opportunity to show the country that Central Florida can spread its fandom beyond the passion of college football weekends.


As the experience draws closer, there are those in Central Florida who can share those emotions first-hand. They just didn't have a courtside seat. They were part of the spectacle that defines March Madness.

Orlando Magic teammates Jalen Suggs and Wendell Carter are perfect examples of that exhilarating yin and yang rush of emotions.


Suggs hit a game-winner when Gonzaga played UCLA in a tournament semi-final on April 3, 2021. With the game tied at 90 with only 3.3 seconds left, Suggs took the inbounds pass, took three dribbles, paused after clearing halfcourt, and banked in the game-winner from 40 feet at the buzzer.


Final score: Gonzaga 93, UCLA 90.


"I did the Tiger Woods walk off with it," he said recently. "You knew it was money.



"After the ball went in my first instinct was to jump on the table and celebrate. That was as close as I could get to my family. To share that moment with them and my teammates was an emotional time."


That emotion was short-lived, as Gonzaga lost to Baylor in the title game.


"Although the end wasn't what we wanted, all stories don't always have good endings," he said.


Wendell Carter can relate.


Back in 2018, his Duke Blue Devils were up by a point with less than three minutes to go in overtime when Kansas guard Malik Newman drove into the lane. Carter, then a freshman, squared up in the lane outside the restricted area and seemed to take a legitimate charge...but he was called for a block.


It was a pivotal moment, including the fact that Carter fouled out on the play. Duke would lose the game, 85-81.


"My NCAA experience started out good but ended bad," he said. "I went to the bench crying. I was hurt because I couldn't help my team win."


Johnny Dawkins can relate, both as a player and a coach. During his playing days at Duke, Dawkins peaked as a senior in 1986. Dawkins won the Naismith College Player of the Year Award, averaging 20.2 points per game. And the Blue Devils, on a team that featured Dawkins, Tommy Amaker, and Jay Bilas, were poised to capture the national title after winning 37 games.


They advanced to the championship game, only to lose to Louisville, 72-69.


Duke missed a defensive rebound on an airball that allowed Louisville to score on a putback, pushing the lead to three points (68-65) with 40 seconds remaining. Without the three-point line in play during that time, the Blue Devils could not overcome the two-possession deficit.


"It's a tough way to end," Dawkins said. "That's just the thing about March Madness, it's not very forgiving. It's when you're in a one and done situation, I think it definitely brings the best out of everyone. There's such desperation involved, where you know this is it after you play it. You either move on or you go home. I think it brings the best out of everyone. That's why you see so many amazing shining moments."


Dawkins would have more shining moments as a coach. He was an assistant at Duke when the Blue Devils won the national championship in 2001.


The team was stacked: Shane Battier. Mike Dunleavy. Jason Williams. Carlos Boozer.


"It was a great group of guys, and I had that moment and shared that experience with those players," Dawkins said. "It's something I'll never forget."


Then, in March of 2019, Dawkins played his alma mater Duke while coaching the UCF Knights in a tournament game played in Columbia, SC.


It was a tough memory. The Knights lost, 77-76, to a No. 1 seed.


"It turned out to be a great, great game," Dawkins said. "You could feel it while we were competing that it was a great game. You knew you were in a special moment. The atmosphere was amazing. I thought our fans were terrific. Their fans were great as well.


"We just came up short. A couple layup attempts at the end to win by one, missed both layup attempts. Couldn't ask our guys to give more than that."


Orlando hopes to re-create that atmosphere this March. And although his UCF Knights may not make the cut, Dawkins is proud of the UCF involvement and the community team-building experience.


"I think Orlando is becoming more basketball-centric, and so excited about the fact that we have football and basketball at the highest levels, whether it's college or pro. I think our fans, our supporters, everyone is going to be very excited about these games that are happening here."

Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer echoes those sentiments.


"In March, when most of the country is still pretty cold, we get to show off Lake Eola and show everything around it," Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer said. " It's a pretty good promo."


Dyer -- a Gator alum who bleeds proverbial orange and blue -- nonetheless has a non-UF March Madness memory that stands out: Chris Webber calling that infamous timeout with 11 seconds remaining during the 1993 national championship game between Michigan and UNC. The problem was that Michigan was out of timeouts. Turnover.


North Carolina would go on to win 77-71. It destroyed the national championship dream for a team labeled the "Fab Five" because of its star-power.


"I think the most magical thing about it is, yes there are favorites, but it's rare to see all No. 1 seeds make it to the Final Four," Dyer said. "It's fabulous."


Indeed, that was the driving motivation for the Greater Orlando Sports Commission in partnering with the City of Orlando and Orlando Venues in putting together the bid package to host the opening rounds.


The game-day drama, coupled with the picture-perfect backdrop of the City Beautiful, was the compelling motivation. The city stands proud as one of 14 host sites for the tournament (including the play-in games), encompassing 68 teams and seven rounds.  This will mark the seventh time that Orlando has hosted opening round play.


"This is becoming a very competitive bid process," said Jason Siegel, President & Chief Executive Officer of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. "We're hosting because we want to bring events that will bring enjoyment to the residents of our community. We know we'll get visitation from fans of the traveling teams and drive economic impact."


"Our goal is to create memories for families to come and watch elite championship basketball. The second layer of that is all the great memories that are made on the court."


The games have yet to begin. But it's safe to say that Orlando is already a winner.