Yesterday gave us our first bonafide Play with a capital "P" that we'll all remember next year. Like you, I've been waiting for that play all tournament long, and at last it arrived. Something about the peculiar way I'm wired, though, means that for me there were actually two such plays in Saturday's games.
Let's start with the one that won a game.
(3) Villanova 78, (1) Pitt 76 [67 possessions] . It shouldn't have come down to Scottie Reynolds. In fact, when this team gets together for its 25-year reunion in 2034, the graying Reynolds should give the balding Reggie Redding a hearty pat on the back. For without Redding there would be no highlight that will allow Reynolds to do Vitamin Water spots for years to come, with a stooped and irascible Jamie Dixon playing his next-door neighbor.
With ten seconds left in the game, Villanova was up by two and Redding was inbounding the ball under Pitt's basket. The Panthers were in foul-immediately mode; they'd been playing from behind ever since a DeJuan Blair traveling call had followed a huge Dwayne Anderson three in the final two minutes.
On this particular inbounds play, however, Pitt was all over both Reynolds and Corey Fisher. With no easy pass to make into the backcourt and the five-count winding down, Redding suddenly abandoned his two-handed chest-pass posture and instead went to, yes, the one-handed full-court pass "go long" pose. By the way, it was at this precise moment that I thanked the hoops gods for not making me a Villanova fan. The paramedics would have found me hours later flat on my back, one hand clutching the remote, the other pointing forward in aghast horror, my facial expression frozen in an eternal "Nooooo!"
Off the ball went, sailing through the air, clearly on a trajectory to land almost on the opposite end line. ("As a sensible basketball person," Jay Wright said after the game with admirable aplomb, "I can say it probably wasn't a great decision.") Running furiously like a wide receiver chasing an overthrown deep bomb, Dante Cunningham caught up with Redding's mad fling on its first bounce. By then Cunningham's momentum was carrying him out of bounds, and all he could do was save the ball back under the Villanova basket. Jermaine Dixon promptly retrieved the rock for Pitt and got it to Levance Fields, who was then fouled by Fisher. Two free throws later it was a tied game. There were five seconds left on the clock.
I was surprised to see Redding again inbounding the ball (and by "surprised" I mean "dumbfounded"), but this time he did make the right play: lofting a high pass to Cunningham in the backcourt, who then directed the ball to a streaking Reynolds with a touch pass that had hook-and-ladder action. You know the rest. Villanova has made its living in the postseason, to use still another football term, by getting the ball to its most skilled players (and they are all skilled) "in space." Reynolds wove through that space, avoided the charging foul, got into the paint, and made the game-winner with less than a second left.
This game had paradigmatic heft even before the opening tip. Pitt came in as the one-seed, and we all know that a secret NCAA memo went out a couple years ago stipulating that one-seeds are forbidden to lose. Then again, the Panthers weren't exactly marching effortlessly through the bracket, having played three very close games against East Tennessee State, Oklahoma State and Xavier. Villanova, conversely, was starting to take on the look of a charmed team, blowing away two quality blue-blooded opponents in UCLA and Duke.
Before the game Wright said he thinks his team is getting better. Well, yesterday on the offensive boards they were superior to their opponent, the best offensive rebounding team in the nation. Not to mention they somehow beat a team whose two main stars, Blair and Sam Young, were a combined 19-of-26 from the field. Yes, I'd say that qualifies as getting better.
(1) Connecticut 82, (3) Missouri 75 . Who knew this Elite Eight contest would come down to a test of wills between Connecticut's Kemba Walker and Missouri's Justin Safford? Not I.
Walker, the freshman reserve on a team full of veterans, took over this game. He was quicker than a team that beat Memphis with its quickness. By late in the second half (see, for example, the possession coming out of the timeout with two minutes left), Jim Calhoun was clearly calling 1-4 sets and putting the ball in Walker's hands. The freshman finished with 23 points and five assists in just 25 minutes. Meanwhile Calhoun also had big bad (yet handily mobile) Stanley Robinson guarding, of all people, Safford, the hitherto obscure sophomore from Bloomington, Illinois. Safford's mere nine points in the box score belie the fact that he forced a Hall of Fame coach for a one-seed to make a defensive adjustment, giving what had been Gavin Edwards' defensive assignment to Robinson.
At halftime it looked as though Missouri might just be able to force Connecticut into giving the game away along with the ball. In the first half the Huskies committed 11 turnovers. Strangely, most of those were unforced errors in UConn's half-court offense. Then again maybe that's a good description of what a Mike Anderson team can do: they force unforced errors. Be that as it may, the Huskies got that taken care of after halftime. That, along with their usual dominance in free throws, was just enough to get them to their third Final Four.
A note regarding a certain co-Big East Player of the Year, one that published reports are now stating quite clearly will likely go pro after this season. Hasheem Thabeet is a game-changer, but he's a game-changer who is still so very raw on offense. With the exception of one nice play in the first half, he really couldn't score on his post moves even against an undersized Missouri team that has no player who can look him in the chin.
There. That concludes my recap of the day's events.
Oh, right, that other play…
With a little more than seven minutes left in the game, A.J. Price hit a three to put the Huskies up by five. Instantly the Tigers, as they will often do, grabbed the ball out of the net and in a flash they were fast-breaking the other way. Unfortunately for Mike Anderson's team, however, Matt Lawrence fumbled the pass as the ball crossed half-court coming up the right sideline. The ball went out of bounds off Lawrence and it seemed like a nice momentum-builder for Connecticut: a rare Missouri turnover following a very rare UConn three.
So the Huskies were clapping and hollering as Lawrence started walking dejectedly toward his defensive end. That's when things got interesting. For reasons fathomable only to his optometrist, the official nearest the play signaled Missouri ball. The Connecticut players went nuts, of course, but it was Lawrence's reaction that was wondrous.
Of the 13 people on the floor, Lawrence was plainly the individual in the best position to know what had really happened--and just as plainly he believed it was going to be Connecticut ball. He was voting with his feet on that very question.
Now, however, Lawrence's feet had been overruled by the officials, and so the senior did something worthy of Seth Rogen, if not Buster Keaton. All the while maintaining a perfectly straight face, Lawrence started ever so slightly to change his path. As all Connecticut heck broke loose around him, he serenely proceeded through a series of trajectories: from straight line, to slight turn, to right-angle, to U-turn. Though apparently his conscience wouldn't allow him to engage in the behavior that's expected when a blown call goes your way (hard clap, "Good call!"), even a lad with a clear conscience has to somehow end up on the correct side of half-court for the ensuing action.
You are an honest soul, Matt Lawrence. Thank you for the fun shining moment.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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