The crowds started staking out their seats at Las Vegas sports books in the wee hours Thursday morning.
By 6:30 a.m., the 400-seat Westgate sports book was packed. At 8 a.m., an estimated throng of close to 1,500 filed into the Westgate theater to watch and wager on the first day of the NCAA Tournament.
They weren’t disappointed.
Popular favorites Villanova, Kansas and Duke covered double-digit spreads, and there were buzzer beaters, bad beats and countless roars from the crowd for baskets made or missed in the final seconds that affected the point spread.
Gamblers on Ramblers
The biggest roar was reserved for No. 11 seed Loyola-Chicago, which pulled off a 64-62 upset of Miami as a popular 1-point underdog when Donte Ingram nailed a deep 3-pointer from the top of the key with one second left.
“When Loyola hit that 3, it was a loser for us, but the place went crazy,” said CG Technology sports book director Jason Simbal, who was at the M Resort. “A lot of people were all over Loyola.”
Under bettors burned in OT
In the first of 16 games, Rhode Island, a 2-point favorite, outlasted Oklahoma 83-78 in overtime while torturing under bettors such as Las Vegas handicapper and radio host Brian Blessing, who lost his wager on under 158 with 11 seconds left in the extra session.
“I hope that’s not an omen,” he said.
Wildcats bury book
It wasn’t, as Blessing won his bet on Davidson, which rallied to cover the spread as a 5½-point underdog in a 78-73 loss to Kentucky, which opened as a 6-point favorite and closed as a 5- or 4½-point favorite.
KiShan Pritchett hit a 3-pointer with two seconds left in what was the worst-case scenario for CG Technology, which lost more than six figures on the game.
“It was our worst game of the day,” Simbal said. “Most people laid 4½ with Kentucky and took Davidson plus 5 and 5½.”
Buffalo bails out books
Favorites started 7-4-1 ATS, but underdogs covered two of the final four games, none bigger than Buffalo’s 89-68 upset of Arizona as a 9-point underdog.
It was a huge swing for the sports books.
“That was a seven-figure swing for us,” Caesars Palace sports book director Frank Kunovic said. “We went from holding less than 1 percent to holding 11 percent. That made our day right there.”
Simbal said the Bulls’ win, which “crushed a lot of parlays,” guaranteed a winning day for his shop.
Westgate sports book director Jay Kornegay said it also turned his place’s day around.
“It was looking pretty ugly if we didn’t get one big upset,” he said.
Duke, Kansas deliver
Duke covered the 13-point first-half spread against Iona, much to the delight of crowds at the Golden Nugget and Westgate sports books, on Grayson Allen’s 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 53-39 lead. The crowd also exploded when the Blue Devils held on to cover the 21-point spread on the game and stayed under the total in their 89-67 win when Iona’s Rickey McGill missed a 3-pointer in the final seconds.
Kansas, a 13½-point favorite over Penn, held on for the cover in a 76-60 victory when the Quakers’ Sam Jones missed an open 3-point attempt with 15 seconds left as the crowd cheered.
“It’s exciting to watch, but it’s funny how all these games go that way,” Simbal said.
MGM Resorts took two six-figure wagers. It lost on Stephen F. Austin, which covered as an 11-point underdog in a 70-60 loss to Texas Tech. It won on South Dakota State, which closed as a 7½-point underdog to Ohio State in an 81-73 loss.
The Jackrabbits bettor lost his large wager in brutal fashion, as the line opened at 8 and climbed to 8½ at one point. South Dakota State went on a 10-0 run to tie the score in the final minutes. But the Buckeyes’ Kam Williams made a tiebreaking four-point play with 1:36 left, then added three free throws after he was fouled on another 3-point attempt.
There will be plenty of chances to rally Friday, when we do it all over again.