- Howard celebrates his winning foul shot, while Wanamaker can't get off his desperation heave in time. (Photo: Associated Press)
At some point during the insanity of the final 2.2 seconds of Saturday night's third-round classic between Pittsburgh and Butler, which the Bulldogs won 71-70, the question stopped being whether you could write a script like this and started being whether you would want to. Reasonable minds would probably agree that only the most impressively devoted sadist would commit that sequence of events to paper, and even he would have to think twice about it.
Andrew Smith's layup to give Butler a 70-69 lead with 2.2 seconds to go should have been the end of it. It should have been the best finish of a tournament that has already seen a fair few great ones. It should have been a moment of redemption for Smith, who had seen an earlier point-blank chance roll painfully off the rim with 44 seconds to go. Instead, his contribution is a mere footnote to the most bizarre NCAA Tournament finish since Chris Webber tried to call time out.
"I've never seen anything like that in 39 years of coaching," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said hours after it was over.
The ball was rolled out to Gilbert Brown on the left side of the floor, by the scorer's table and the benches. As Brown bent down to collect the ball and look for an opening to get a shot off, up came junior guard Shelvin Mack who had scored 30 points on 10-for-16 shooting (including seven three-pointers, one more than the entire Pittsburgh team) and generally ensured that he should never have to pay for food or drink within a 20-mile radius of Hinkle Fieldhouse. But he got too close here, and bumped Brown just as the Pitt senior was preparing to let fly.
"[My] first reaction was make [Brown] pick up the ball," Mack said Saturday night. "When [the inbound pass came] I was running to the sideline, trying to move out the way, but [the play] was coming towards me. I put myself in the best situation to make the ref make a call. Once the call was made, I realized that it was the dumbest mistake of my life."
As with all late calls in close games, there was a natural explosion of anger from the crowd of 18,684, most of whom had long since gone past the point of no return when it came to rooting for the Bulldogs. But as the officials huddled at the scorer's table to determine how much time should be put back on the clock (they settled on 1.4 seconds; crew chief John Higgins later clarified that only the time remaining was reviewable and not the foul call itself), only the most devoted champion of the underdog could see an error in referee Terry Wymer's call.
"I think if it's a foul it should be called a foul, no matter if it's 0.2 seconds left on clock or 39 minutes left on the clock," Mack admitted. "The game is played for a full 40 minutes, I think it should be reffed for a full 40 minutes."
Mack's mortification didn't stop him from exchanging words with Brown as the officials called the teams back to the floor. "We just had a regular conversation," Mack said. "I just asked him where he was from. Simple question, just talk to him a little bit. He responded back. There's no trash talking or anything like that." Good thing, too. Under the circumstances, it would have taken polished brass for Mack to deliver his version of Scottie Pippen's famous "The Mailman doesn't deliver on Sundays" taunt of Karl Malone during Game 1 of the 1997 NBA Finals.
Brown made the first foul shot and missed the second. Overtime seemed a certainty as Matt Howard, Thursday afternoon's hero, grabbed the rebound and heaved it downcourt. But before the buzzer sounded, the third referee, Antonio Petty, blew his whistle. He'd seen Nasir Robinson's arm come down hard across Howard, as if he was trying to swat a particularly large and distracting insect. That brought about another review ,which resulted in 0.8 seconds being put on the clock, and Howard stood 15 feet away from an improbable win.
There was much fevered talk in the immediate aftermath that Pittsburgh coach Jaime Dixon should have ordered his team to move off the lane prior to Brown's second free throw to prevent just such an occurrence as Robinson's foul. Brown, after all, had made all four of his foul shots in the game to that point. But Brown was only a 79% foul shooter entering the game, not exactly Ray Allen in his prime, and anyway, no coach worth his fine tailored suits would knowingly pass up the opportunity for a game-winning rebound and putback with 1.4 seconds left in a tie game. Besides, who could have expected the events that followed would actually happen?
No, regrettably (for he played a terrific game), blame for this one must fall on Robinson, who said after the game, "I wasn't thinking at all. I was trying to make a play. It was a dumb play and I wasn't thinking at all ... I blame myself. I am smarter than that. I have been playing this game too long to make a dumb mistake like that. I blame myself." In the few hours since the game ended, those lines show every possibility of being Pitt basketball's version of "What a stupid I am!"
By the time Pitt's last (late) heave bounced harmlessly off the rim, everyone in the building, it seemed, had lost the ability to comprehend what they had just seen. Except, that is, the officiating crew of Higgins, Wymer, and Petty, who drew rave reviews from both coaches for their performance and have surely earned themselves a plumb assignment next weekend for their willingness to make difficult (but correct) calls and not surrender to the popular credo of "let the players decide" which is far too often an excuse for official cowardice as opposed to laissez-faire refereeing.
"We do it every day," Higgins said afterward. "It just happened to be a crucial part of the game. You have to do what you have to do as an official.
"If we get it right, we're good. If we get it wrong, we're deadbeats and we're all over SportsCenter. We did what we think is correct."
Connecticut 69, Cincinnati 58
Cincinnati fans could be forgiven for thinking that Kemba Walker is a perfect fit for the NBA. After all, some were no doubt reasoning as they left the Verizon Center, the junior from the Bronx is already getting star calls.
That's slightly unfair to UConn, who did deserve their win on the balance of play, but it wasn't just Bearcat fans who were looking at the 30-14 UConn advantage in free throws attempted with interest. "We didn't want to foul [Walker]," said Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin, who saw Walker attempt as many foul shots (14) as his whole team. Cronin was no doubt thinking of a highly questionable flagrant foul call on Justin Jackson as he attempted to stop a Walker fast break dunk in the first half. Walker made both free throws and Alex Oriakhi made a jumper on the extra UConn possession to give the Huskies a 30-22 lead and cap a 15-2 run.
Cincinnati fans will also be wondering what might have been if Walker had been called for traveling after his drive to the rim was shut off with nine-and-a-half minutes to play and his team up just 47-45. Many blinkered and neutral eyes thought they saw Walker shuffle his pivot foot, but nothing was called, and Walker drilled a big three later in the possession to put Connecticut up five.
But again, we're being unfair to Walker, who scored 33 points largely through sheer determination and reinforced his special place in the heart of Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun, who knows a bit about determination.
"I listen to him as much as any player since Caron Butler," said Calhoun, who earlier in his press conference had put Kemba in some truly lofty company: "I become more convinced of this every day, having [had] so many great players who have done so many things for us, that Kemba is [in] an elite class. Years down the road when you say Ray Allen, Rip [Hamilton], Emeka [Okafor], Ben [Gordon], certainly Kemba's name will be there."
Calhoun's words are all the more striking when you consider that the first four players named have won championships, and though Kemba and his mostly younger cohorts have brought UConn to a place few thought they'd be three weeks ago, there is a sense that Walker, et. al. will have to reach another level to give UConn its most unlikely Final Four appearance, which would require them to get past two of the following four: San Diego State, Duke, Texas (who UConn played, and beat, in an Austin classic earlier this year), or Arizona.
The Marketing Associate and the Grandfather
But first things first. San Diego State awaits Connecticut in Anaheim Thursday night. That's 34-2 San Diego State, No. 2 seed in the West, playing approximately 90 miles from its own campus. A team Calhoun called "the real deal" and "as athletic as any Big East-type team." Coincidentally, Calhoun has had most of his tournament success in the West Regional. The Huskies won both their national titles (1999, 2004) and reached all three of their Final Fours (1999, 2004, 2009) coming out of the West. But Calhoun also knows something about having to play in hostile environments. He lost to eventual national champion UCLA in the 1995 West Regional Final in Oakland. He had to play North Carolina in the 1998 East Regional Final at the Greensboro Coliseum. And his 2002 squad gave a noble effort, but succumbed to eventual national champion Maryland in the East Regional final in that most anti-Husky of environs, Syracuse, New York.
But as many have pointed out during the course of this weekend, Jim Calhoun has conditioned himself to relish being counted out and to love coming out of nowhere. "Two years ago, we were in the Final Four," he said Saturday night. "And that's been a tough thing to tell people because no one believes us. We didn't have a particularly good season last year. And I think when you're on a particular level, we necessarily didn't get a pass. We didn't get a pass. And that happens. But I don't think we ever got concerned about that."
His jig of delight after Walker beat the buzzer and Pittsburgh simultaneously in the Big East quarterfinals earlier this month belied Calhoun's nonchalance, but if anybody's earned a pass, it's the 68-year grandfather of six who joked that Saturday's game, which actually stretched into Sunday morning, ended past his bedtime.
Butler coach Brad Stevens, a 34-year-old former player at Division III DePauw University and a former marketing associate at Eli Lilly (who still looks the part, particularly in the spectacles he favored this weekend), is in an analogous position to Calhoun. His team was written off as a title contender for this season on the May day that Gordon Hayward, last year's star man and nearly man, declared for the NBA Draft and the general shrugging continued even as Butler won 24 games and did the Horizon League regular season and tournament double.
Now, Stevens' team heads to New Orleans to face a difficult, but perfectly winnable game against Wisconsin, to be followed (if results allow), by one of two opponents: a BYU team in the process of becoming America's new sweethearts led by Jimmer Fredette, this year's Gordon Hayward (imagine how much spilled ink THAT match-up would attract) or a Florida team that will have lots of fan support and a broad path to the Final Four.
Either way, as they prepare to leave Washington behind, both Stevens and Calhoun knew that there was a very good chance that they would be underdogs. But if history is any guide, that distinction seems to suit both men rather well.