A piece by Ray Francis.
As I walked uphill to the US Cellular Center (probably less than 400 yards, although I’m sure the figure will be 10 miles by the time I’m 50), my mind was already racing. There is no better way to learn about Murphy’s Law than to follow a favored team in a mid-major conference. Any of 1,000 tiny things can go wrong once in March, and an entire year’s work goes down the drain. Having been taught by three painful ousters from the SoCon Tournament to hope for the best but prepare for the worst, my mind was constructing ways in which a football school could knock off the favored Wildcats in the tournament final. Local support from the Catamount fans loomed as a possibility, but I tried to downplay it as I entered the stadium.
The gates opened at 8:00. At 8:03, Phil and I arrived at the seating area behind the basket. The section was bathed in purple, perhaps 85% of the seats already taken by the Catamount student section. We snagged seats in the Davidson area of the section as the last chairs were going.
57 minutes until tip-off. Nothing to do except sit, wait, fret, and watch as Catamount fans file in. They are numerous and vocal, but Davidson is not under-represented. To my relief, I spy sizable contingents of Wildcats both in the upper part of the stadium and behind the team bench. Catamount fans comprise about 65% of the attendees (not 95%, as a Catamount poster will laughably claim post-game). Bands play, fans buzz, and the tension is palpable.
Tip-off is late. Phil and I realize that the MAAC Championship game must be running late. In the SoCon, you forget that ESPN can have games delayed in order to finish the first half of a doubleheader. Delay is galling enough, but delaying our game so that the clown Jimmy Patsos can finish his game is intolerable. Patsos’ selfish stunt against the Wildcats 3 years ago is not forgotten among the Wildcat faithful, and it is safe to say that his Loyola Greyhounds will find little NCAA love in Iredell County.
The game starts. Western leads by 5. Of course they do. A tournament underdog with a partisan crowd always starts fast. Adrenaline makes them forget that this is their fourth game in 4 days. But adrenaline does not last for 40 minutes, and even when Western leads 30-18 with 8 minutes left in the first half, I believe that game will even out. Phil agrees. “Plenty of time to be ahead at halftime.”
All it takes is a JP three-pointer to turn the tide. The Wildcat offense is kick-started, and Davidson closes the half on a 16-5 run. Western banks in a 3 right before the half: a fluke like this can mean that the Basketball Gods have favored them tonight. Or it can mean that Western’s legs have left them entirely and they are ripe for a knockout blow. I hope for the latter but the former possibility remains lodged in my head.
Western’s fatigue begins to show. They fight gamely, but Davidson’s hyper-efficient offense takes command. A series of crisp cuts and passes reduces the Catamount defenders to spectators as the Wildcats open up a double figure lead. A series of lay-ups on offense, and outstanding effort on defense. Dikembe is in the house, and Cohen is doing his best impression of the future Hall of Famer, spiking Catamount shots like a volleyball player. Behind the basket, we imitate the Dikembe finger wag after every block. This confuses the Western students. Earlier, Phil had challenged them to name 3 Western players. After sowing confusion with our Mutombo tribute, I begin to see why they did not respond to his challenge.
I have seen this script played out in countless games, the plucky underdog yielding at last to the superior squad, and our execution is so masterful that even the pragmatist inside me thinks “OK, it looks like we’ve got this.”
“I believe that we will win! I believe that we will win!” The chant seems to originate from the band and quickly infiltrates the rest of the student section. I cringe. 2:30 is plenty of time for the Basketball Gods to smite us for so boastful a chant.
Western’s run begins with King making foul shots. He looks like a 65% foul shooter, but he seems to have made every one he has taken in the second half. Still, up by ten with under two minutes to play. No need to panic.
Western hits a 3. JP is fouled. As he walks to our end to shoot the 1-and-1, the pessimist inside me begins to whisper. The foul shot rims out. Uh-oh. Still a 7-point lead, but the breaks are favoring Western.
Banked-in 3 again. The Western fans are roaring. Momentum, that fickle mistress, is decked out in purple and gold. The inbounds is stolen. Sumler takes the pass. He contorts his body like a pretzel. His 3 goes in. Of course it does. One-point game. The Catamount faithful have blown the roof off the building. My legs are numb. The nagging voice of my inner pessimist is replaced by a creeping horror.
Cochran is at the line. Despair reigns. He shoots well over 80% from the line, but nothing else in the last 2 minutes has made sense, so should this be any different? As Claire later wrote, sanity had left the building.
If he misses either shot, we will lose. Western will go for the win, and the way the game is shaping up, their mascot would probably hit a 3 if given the chance. Thankfully, this does not come to pass. Cochran makes both. A temporary reprieve.
Keaton Cole makes all 3 foul shots. I don’t need to watch to know that he will make them. After seeing the Basketball Gods intervene so much already, why would I believe they will stop now?
As regulation ends, I try to convince myself that we can win. If any team can overcome the trauma of such a collapse, it is a McKillop-coached squad. I have no idea what I would say to my team in that huddle, but I am sure that what McKillop is saying is an elixir that will lead us to victory.
But nothing McKillop says can make King miss his foul shots. The big man hits two more, and Western leads by 2. They are on a 19-4 run.
The shot clock is winding down. Amid the chaos, the ball finds its way to the Swede. He is 1-5 so far. He is leaning to his right. But his 3-pointer is true. The lead is only 81-80, but after the Western comeback, any lead is priceless. The Swede will foul twice and miss two shots later in this overtime, but his triple has brought Davidson back from the abyss.
Brooks converts the 3-point play, courtesy of the Swede’s offensive board, JP’s pass, and a friendly roll off the iron. 84-80. Can we relax now, I ask myself?
No. Silly question. Western keeps coming, tying the game once again. With 20 seconds left, they steal the ball under their own goal. But finally, the Basketball Gods are on our side. The go-ahead lay-up misses.
But so does Brooks’ buzzer-beater. It hangs on the rim. I leap in anticipation, but the ball slides slowly off the iron. Double overtime.
I have lost the ability to think or speak. I can’t feel my legs. I am physically exhausted. The students make a mosh pit before the fourth period begins, and I can’t summon the energy to join in. I don’t think Phil and I have said a word for the past half hour. How much longer will this go on?
The Swede cans a second three, his body English willing the ball through the basket. Western answers with a triple of their own. Cochran banks in a tough runner in traffic. King hits 2 more foul shots. He will finish the game 10-12 from the charity stripe.
Clint catches the pass and looks at the goal. In a split second he realizes that his path to the goal is unobstructed. His eyes widen. He drives. He bends his knees an extra half inch. He’s going to dunk, I realize. Sure enough, he throws it down with 2 hands. 93-91. My mind doesn’t think about winning. I am just happy that we made it harder for Western to take the lead at the other end.
Western misses. Our ball. Brooks has a mismatch, but his jumper is off with 13 seconds left. As Western call for time, a strange serenity sweeps over me. I think back to the Elite 8 game against Kansas. Now, we are the favorite. Western will shoot a 3 for the win. They will miss. We will win the game.
Maybe I was able to convince myself of that result because of all the basketball games I have watched. Or maybe all the Panthers games I’ve watched have made me a master of wishful thinking. Regardless, as Western’s final 3 soars towards the basket, I don’t worry about it going in. I calmly wait to see which side it will miss towards. It misses left. We win.
I collapse in my seat, so drained that I couldn’t even move. The fear of losing bleeds out. The joy of winning will slowly develop as I drive home. For now, all I can feel is shock at how the game played out and gratitude to the players. As a fan and alum, I feel the urge to thank them for the wonderful ride this season has been.