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COLUMN | GAME STORY | ENTERPRISE | MAGAZINE FEATURE | FEATURE
FIRST PLACE: GAME STORY
COLUMBUS, OHIO – March memories in college basketball are about joy and heartbreak. Anyone who watches the NCAA basketball tournament knows that an inch here or there, a whistle blown or not blown, a pass deflected or not deflected often leads to moments the winners and losers will remember forever.
Virginia and Tennessee played one of those games here Sunday, a second-round classic on a weekend filled with remarkable games and finishes. It was a game that began as a track meet and ended as a chess match.
"I like to talk about the process of a game," said Tennessee Coach Bruce Pearl, whose team advanced with a 77-74 win only after Sean Singletary's 23-footer from the right wing spun out as time expired. "Those last few seconds were all about kids executing. Virginia executed perfectly on the last play, and got Singletary a good look at the basket. It didn't go in." He smiled. "I guess that makes me a genius."
On this day – Pearl's 47th birthday – it made him and his team a winner. But it would be simplistic at best, unfair at worst, to label Virginia a loser. In fact, the case can be made that if not for a fluke play late in the first half, the Cavaliers would be heading to San Antonio next week instead of the Volunteers.
That play came late in the first half. J.R. Reynolds, who had been superb in Virginia's first-round win over Albany, had picked up right where he left off. He was burying three-pointers from everywhere – most of them with a hand in his face – and when the Tennessee defense extended to deny him the three, he drove to the basket and scored. Before the half was over, he had 22 points.
In the final minute of the half, he went to the basket again. This time though, in a scrum of bodies, Reynolds's right foot came down on someone's ankle. He rolled the ankle slightly, not seriously enough to force him out of the game, but just enough to affect the way he was shooting the ball.
"You could see he didn't have the same lift when he went up to shoot after that," Pearl said. "I ran some plays to drive the ball at him at the other end, but they did a good job with defensive help a couple times when we went by him."
Reynolds's defense is not the key to his game; his shooting is. He made 4 of 8 three-point attempts in the first half, 0 of 3 in the second. He had just four points after the injury.
Even so, the Cavaliers had a chance to escape, in part because reserve Adrian Joseph produced 10 second-half points and because Singletary, on a day when he struggled with his shot, simply would not give up. Unable to make a three-point shot until the last minute of the game, Singletary adjusted, began taking the ball to the basket and got to the free throw line, where he made 10 of 12 foul shots. Tennessee led most of the second half, but couldn't pull away. So it came down to the final 30 seconds with the two coaches dueling with one another.
Dane Bradshaw made two free throws with 28 seconds left to put the Vols up 71-67, Singletary answered six seconds later with two of his own. That was when Pearl decided to put the game into the hands of his best player, all-American guard Chris Lofton. Every inbounds play was designed to get the ball to him.
"I've got faith in our other guys," said Bradshaw, the inbounder. "But I'm going to wait every time if I can for the chance to get the ball to Chris."
Even with Virginia trying to double-team, Lofton kept zigging and zagging to get open.
"The key is the catch," Pearl said. "He did a great job making the catch and then being aggressive. He never got trapped, so they had to foul."
Three times Virginia tried to deny Lofton the ball; three times he got open. Each time he coolly swished both free throws. After the first two, Singletary got behind a high screen and drilled a three-pointer. The second time, under orders from Pearl, with the lead 75-72, JaJuan Smith fouled Singletary as he crossed midcourt with 6.3 seconds left.
Many coaches – most – are reluctant to foul in that situation. Xavier's Sean Miller paid the price for that reluctance Saturday when Ohio State's Ron Lewis made a three-pointer to send the game into overtime with two seconds to play. Pearl wanted to try to avoid that. So he fouled.
"I've got [Lofton] on my team," Pearl said. "I've got faith in him to get the ball and to make free throws. If you foul in that situation they have to do four things to tie the game: make a free throw, miss a free throw, rebound the miss and make another offensive play. If you don't foul, they just have to make one play."
With some help from his coach, Singletary almost made that play. After Lofton's last two free throws made it 77-74 with 5.9 seconds left, he dashed upcourt with the ball. Josh Tabb, guarding him, had orders to foul him as soon as he crossed midcourt. Knowing that, Virginia Coach Dave Leitao sent Jason Cain to midcourt to screen Tabb before he could get to Singletary. Tabb smacked into Cain, and Singletary flashed past him.
"At that point Jordan Howell was supposed to come up and help and foul right away," Pearl said. "We had a backup plan if there was a screen. But Jordan didn't get there in time."
He didn't get there in large part because Singletary is water-bug quick and he was smart enough to veer right to stay away from him. As the Tennessee players and bench watched in horror, Singletary pulled up about four feet beyond the three-point line for a squared-up shot.
"I thought it was in," he said later. "I had good rotation and good lift on it."
Standing under the basket, watching the ball arc toward the rim, Bradshaw thought it was in, too.
"I was thinking, 'Why hasn't he been fouled?'" he said. "From where I was, it looked good. The kid kept his team in the game. He had nothing to be ashamed of at all."
Seeing the shot come out, Singletary fell to the floor, face down, burying his head.
No one understood how Singletary felt when the shot rimmed out better than his coach. As soon as the buzzer sounded, Leitao was on the court, helping Singletary to his feet, wrapping his arms around him, whispering in his ear. Twenty-five years ago as a junior at Northeastern, Leitao had two shots in the final six seconds of overtime that could have given the Huskies a stunning second-round upset over Villanova. Instead, the Wildcats won the game in triple overtime.
"When I say I know how he felt, I know how he felt," Leitao said. "I had an open shot with six seconds to go and then got the rebound and missed again. It's an awful, empty feeling. At least in that situation, the game wasn't over. This time, the game was over. I feel very connected to Sean. Whether he plays well or doesn't play well is less important to me than what he's meant to the program. At that moment, I wanted him to know that."
"He's been through it before, so he understands," he said. "He told me it wasn't about the last shot."
It was a bittersweet moment: a classy coach comforting a classy player at the end of a classic game. A few feet away Pearl waited to shake hands with Leitao and Singletary.
"We celebrate; they console," he said. "It easily could have been the other way around."
It was a memorable ending to a game neither side will forget anytime soon.
Nor should they.
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