LEXINGTON, Ky. -- When it was over, they were drained, and the victims of March's first truly mad minute sat languishing in front of their lockers, red-eyed and dazed in the wake of their shining moment having been yanked from underneath them. The NCAA-mandated 10-minute post-game cooling period had expired and with it Davidson's brief insulation from the media outside, who now ventured into the cloud of melancholy to talk to junior forward De'Mon Brooks, the 2012 Southern Conference Player of the Year who in the game's final 10 seconds had thrown the ball away. On the next play, Marquette junior Vander Blue drove and scored with one second remaining, giving third-seeded Marquette a 59-58 win.
Now, seated in the corner of the room closest to the door, Brooks explained that when he got the ball off the inbound, teammate Jake Cohen was double-teamed and he saw another double-team coming, so he tried to lead Nik Cochran with a pass and the ball simply got away from him. He was quiet and his words were labored; the rest of the room nearly silent aside from a teammate's occasional sniffle.
"We left it all on the floor," Brooks said. "One play."
Though the turnover was perhaps the game's most pivotal shift, in reality it was several plays that cost Davidson. The Golden Eagles, one of the Big East's three regular-season champions, have become adept this year at fueling themselves with external slights, beginning with being picked to finish seventh in the league. It continued this week, when coach Buzz Williams shared with them before Tuesday's practice all the pundits that had tabbed them as prime for an upset. And, though thoroughly supported by the data in which Marquette ranks 313th nationally in three-point shooting percentage, Williams added a critical barb of his own during Wednesday's media session when he noted, flatly, "We can't shoot ... Every team we play knows we can't shoot."
So it was surprising that, some 24 hours later, the deep ball bailed out Marquette. Davidson had matched the Golden Eagles every step for most of the game, trading brief runs during the first 30 minutes before the Wildcats opened a nine-point lead with 6:25 to play on a jumper from Cohen, one of the eight returning regulars from the Davidson team that reached the tournament a year ago. As the game's final minute approached, the Wildcats led by six, an advantage that, as the nation's best free-throw shooting team (80.1 percent), they are better equipped than most to maintain late in the game.
That's when the surprises began. From the left wing, junior forward Jamil Wilson, Marquette's top three-point shooter entering the game at 36.1 percent, hit a three to cut the Wildcats' lead to 54-51 with one minute remaining. It was only Marquette's second three of the game, on 13 attemtps. On the other end, Brooks hit a layup to increase the lead to five ... only to have Blue, a 29.2 percent three-point shooter, answer with another three, the Golden Eagles' second in a row, to cut the lead to two with 28.5 seconds left. Cochran was then fouled and made both shots, and Davidson led by four. Then Wilson did it again, hitting Marquette's third three in a row to shrink Davidson's lead to 58-57 with 10.5 seconds remaining.
"We had to take the shot," Blue said, after conceding (with Williams seconding the notion) that he would not call himself a three-point shooter. "It was win or go home. It was do or die."
Then came the play Brooks couldn't shake, the turnover that set up the winning basket. During an officials' timeout to check the clock -- an "unfair advantage," according to Davidson coach Bob McKillop, as the Golden Eagles had no timeouts left -- Williams drew up a play for Blue with 5.5 seconds left. Just as he did to beat St. John's at the end of the regular season, Blue would keep the ball, coming off a high screen from Gardner and driving to his left. Jake Thomas and Junior Cadougan were perched in the corners should Blue need them; if the lane were clogged, he was to stop, pivot and find another option. But the plan was for Blue to decide the game himself and as the Golden Eagles took the floor out of the break, Marquette assistant Brad Autry implored Blue, "Trust your shot."
He did, and none of the other options proved necessary. The 6-foot-10 Cohen picked up Blue, who drove around him to lay in the go-ahead basket with one second remaining. It was a play whose origins trace back to the individual workouts last summer where Blue tried to forge himself into more than the supporting player he was during his first two seasons. The 6-4 Blue worked for hours with Autry, broom in hand, to simulate the larger defenders he would have to navigate in the paint, learning when to finish "high" (as he did against St. John's) and when to finish "long" (as he did against Davidson).
"People think that just happens because you're a good player," said Autry of Blue's recent heroics. "But they don't realize the thousands of shots you took. He deserves to make those shots."
After Blue picked off Cohen's inbound pass at midcourt, denying the Wildcats one last shot, it was over. There would be no upset. Blue disappeared into a mass of hugging teammates before the teams shook hands and headed to their locker rooms, where the Golden Eagles breathed sighs of relief as they chowed on pizza, and the Wildcats were left to digest what had just happened.