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Bettors arrive at books early and stay late for NCAA Tournament

By Todd Dewey, Las Vegas Review-Journal

The biggest upset on your bracket wasn’t an upset against the point spread, but that didn’t dampen the enthusiasm of thousands of visitors and locals alike who packed Las Vegas sports books Thursday on the first day of the NCAA Tournament.

Bettors began staking out their seats at the Westgate sports book at 4 a.m., the place was packed by 6 a.m. and there was a steady stream of people waiting in line to bet when it opened at 7 a.m. who wished they had a mobile app.

“The first day is always the busiest day,” Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said. “They all get here early and full of vinegar. I call them ‘Day Oners.’ I always say they’re cute at that age.

“Friday will be a different story, as we’ll see a lot more lattes instead of Bloody Marys and Coronas at 10 o’clock in the morning.”

At least bettors won’t have to recover from any bad beats, as there really weren’t any in the first 16 games. Other than the intentional foul that cost Vanderbilt a win over Northwestern. But we’ll get to that later.

The books lost on Middle Tennessee State, seemingly everybody’s pick to pull off this year’s 12-5 upset. The Blue Raiders delivered an 81-72 win over Minnesota, but it wasn’t a true upset as they closed as 1½-point favorites.

“There was big betting on Middle Tennessee State,” Kornegay said. “That was a game that everybody loved.”

The Westgate and William Hill sports books won big on the tournament opener between Notre Dame and Princeton, another 12-5 matchup. The Fighting Irish, who were favored from 5½ to 7 points, escaped with a 60-58 win over the Tigers when Devin Cannady missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with seven seconds left.

“It was a big game for us, but if Princeton had made that basket and won outright, it would’ve been a monster game for us,” Westgate sports book manager Ed Salmons said. “The sharps were on the ’dog, but the public was all over Notre Dame.”

William Hill, which operates 108 sports books in Nevada, won big when Iowa State covered the 6-point spread against UNR and the late game stayed under — by a point — in the Cyclones’ 84-73 win.

“We got bombarded by (UNR) money at every book in Northern Nevada,” William Hill sports book director Nick Bogdanovich said. “That was, by far, our biggest handle. And they bet the over, too. (UNR’s) been going over like crazy.”

The Wolf Pack, a No. 12 seed, cut a 13-point second-half deficit to five on Cameron Oliver’s dunk with 3:04 left, but Iowa State scored the next five points en route to the win. Marcus Marshall missed a 3-pointer with 10 seconds left for UNR that would have pushed the total over.

Favorites went 8-8 ATS, with North Dakota missing two 3-pointers in the final seconds to allow Arizona to cover for most bettors in a 100-82 win. The Wildcats opened as 17-point favorites, and the line also sat at 17½, 18 and 18½.

Other favorites that covered were Wisconsin, Florida, Saint Mary’s, Butler and Purdue, which was favored by 10½ points Wednesday but closed as an 8½-point favorite in a 10-point win over Vermont.

Butler barely covered the 11-point spread against Winthrop in a 76-64 win. In an only-in-Las Vegas moment, bettors screamed for Winthrop’s Roderick Perkins to pull up for a 3-pointer on a last-second breakaway for the push instead of driving for a dunk as he did.

Neither No. 1 seed covered. The wiseguys won on Mount Saint Mary’s, a 25-point ’dog that led Villanova for much of the first half in a 20-point loss. The books cashed in on South Dakota State, a ’dog of 22½ to 23½ points that lost by 20 to Gonzaga after the Bulldogs dribbled out the clock at the end of the game.

In classic Vegas fashion, Gonzaga bettors in the sports book were screaming “Shoot! Shoot!” as the Zags held the ball. Meanwhile, in the Westgate theater, Jackrabbits backers were on their feet cheering because the Bulldogs didn’t shoot.

Other ’dogs that covered included Florida Gulf Coast, UNC Wilmington, Xavier and Northwestern.

The matchup of Northwestern and Vanderbilt — two schools that are supposed to be smart — produced the dumbest play of the day. After the Commodores, 2-point favorites, went ahead by one with 17.8 seconds left, Vandy guard Matthew Fisher-Davis grabbed Bryant McIntosh, who made both free throws to give the Wildcats the lead en route to their 68-66 win.

“Unbelievable. That was one of the worst things I’ve ever seen,” Bogdanovich said. “That was a low-action game, nothing major. Unless you had a ticket in your pocket. Then it was brutal.”

Grab your beverage of choice and place your bets early. It’s time to do it all over again Friday.

Contact reporter Todd Dewey at tdewey@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0354. Follow @tdewey33 on Twitter.

FRIDAY’S BEST BETS

Oregon-Iona Over 152: Both teams hail from high-scoring conferences and should score a lot of points in a wide-open game. Iona, which scored at least 90 points in nine games this season, has gone over in 15 of its past 21 and won’t have to worry about facing injured Ducks shot blocker Chris Boucher. Oregon has gone over in six of seven.

Seton Hall (+1) over Arkansas: The Pirates have hit their stride, winning five straight games before suffering a two-point loss to Villanova, in the Big East Conference tournament semifinals. When the line is three points or fewer in an 8-9 matchup, the underdog, in this case No. 9 Seton Hall, has covered 11 straight (including Northwestern on Thursday).

Rhode Island (pick) over Creighton: The Rams are riding an eight-game win streak and playing their best basketball of the season after winning the Atlantic 10 tournament, while the Bluejays have lost seven of eight since losing point guard Maurice Watson in January to a season-ending injury.