MILWAUKEE – Sometimes it comes down to the last available fraction of a second. Sometimes it comes down to a shot gone awry and basketball pinballing between the legs of a 290-pound center while at least a half-dozen hands scraped to get at it. But Cameron Ridley found it there, the Texas sophomore's waffle iron-sized mitts plucking the ball out and then sending it up. It bounced off the glass and through the net as the red lights lit and the horn sounded through the arena. And a full roster of teammates sprung from the bench to do the impossible, to make a giant of a man who saved the day disappear from sight.
Eventually, Ridley reemerged, just as officials checked the monitors to make sure their eyes did not deceive them. Once that was confirmed and seventh-seeded Texas had an 87-85 win over No. 10 seed Arizona State at the Bradley Center, the Longhorns swallowed Ridley whole again while the Sun Devils zombie-walked into a handshake line.
Sometimes a fraction of time is the difference between joy and dejection. And sometimes that's hard to comprehend even for those who experienced it. It was well after the shot and the celebration when Ridley and Demarcus Holland walked down a hallway with a Texas staffer escorting them to the interview room, when Holland turned his head to Ridley and smiled.
“Damn, man, that was some March Madness (stuff),” Holland said, pointing at the gargantuan game-saver. “You did it.”
In one motion, he turned a snore of a day of NCAA tournament games – the three previous contests in Milwaukee all were decided by double-digit margins – into a gilded memory. But then maybe no one should be surprised Texas basketball produced the operatic finish after a season spent slowly and surely removing its coach's neck from the guillotine. The Longhorns were outrebounded in a game they thought they'd dominate on the glass. They blew a 14-point second-half lead. Their final offensive possessions were a muddle. They relied on the dexterity of a spaceship-sized 20-year-old, bent over in a chaotic scramble, to bring them through.
And it worked. “I've never made a game-winner in my life,” Ridley said. “To walk off the court knowing you were the one that made the play to take the team to the next round, it's a great feeling.”
Sometimes a fragment of a second puts you on the other side of that feeling.
Outside the door to the Arizona State locker room late Thursday, Jordan Bachynski stood motionless against a white cement wall. The 7-foot-2 senior center stared ahead, arms folded across his chest, mouth slightly open. All night he'd battled Ridley, recording a game-high 25 points and grabbing seven rebounds. He helped bring his team back and even provided a lead on a dunk with 46 seconds to go. And what became the last game of his college career came down to...this? A hurried, contested three-pointer and a weird carom and a putback attempt that was a breath away from being too slow?
“It's a tough one,” Bachynski said, the emotion rising in his voice. “Most rebounds come off long, and I was playing for that. It just took a funny bounce and my man read the ball better than I did. He got the rebound and the bucket.”
Sometimes there's no explaining it beyond that, beyond a literal recount of events, because nothing else makes sense.
In the locker room a good 45 minutes after the buzzer, Texas still was discussing what was supposed to happen on that final possession and what happened instead. After Arizona State's Jonathan Gilling tied the game 80-80 on free throws with 16.2 seconds left, Texas planned for some screen and re-screen action involving Jonathan Holmes and Javan Felix. But the communication broke down. Nothing close to that materalized. So Holmes saw six or seven seconds left on the clock and popped out as his man sagged down. He hoisted the shot. He knew it was on line, so it was either in or long.
It wasn't in. And Ridley was right there, just in time. “I expected John to make it,” Ridley said. “I went to the glass as hard as I could, and the ball came to me, so I tried to get it up as fast as I possibly could and it went in.”
“I've seen stuff like that on TV, but never in person,” Holmes said. “That's some storybook stuff.”
So the Longhorns mobbed the hero of the day, punching him and delivering noogies on the court. As they all left the floor, Ridley and coach Rick Barnes remained for a postgame television interview. Ridley, then, was the last to come through the locker room door, entering a space oddly calm and quiet. He walked to his chair in the back right, close to the entrance to the shower area. He sat down.
And after a beat, his teammates were on him again. They pulled him out of the chair and jumped on his massive frame and tackled Ridley to the carpet, again reliving a moment no one had any intention of letting go.
“It's crazy, especially for him,” Felix said. “I know he's probably going to get us back. He deserves it, though. He deserves it.”
It was on to Saturday and a game against No. 2 seed Michigan. A season that began with Barnes all but fired before it started ultimately breathed new life into the program, which survived another day. At a table in a semi-lit holding area late Thursday, Barnes sat with his legs crossed and examined a purple sheet of paper containing the final statistics of the win, his team's 24th and most exhilarating.
Moments later, he'd talk about being fortunate, about finding a way, about a team that didn't flinch. And he talked about the team on the other side, coached by his good friend Herb Sendek, victimized by one ill bounce and one shot. “I wish we both could still be playing,” Barnes said.
Sometimes, you're just on the right side of a fraction of time.
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