AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – Every time a Memphis player missed a free throw down the stretch, the likelihood of madness increased. The Tigers missed four of eight free throws in the final two minutes Thursday – any of this sound familiar? – so when Saint Mary’s forward Eividas Petrulis ascended from a crowd to shoot what seemed an ill-advised three-pointer, the Gaels still had a prayer.
The ball left Petrulis’ hands at an unnatural angle. No chance. Couldn’t be. It slammed off the backboard and dropped through the net with 3.1 seconds remaining. Petrulis didn’t call the bank, but the scorer gave him the points anyway. Saint Mary’s trailed by two, but if Memphis could inbound the ball, even a 1-for-2 trip to the line would keep them from losing on a single shot. They couldn’t inbound the ball. Saint Mary’s guard Jordan Giusti knocked it away and out of bounds off Memphis guard Joe Jackson with 1.9 seconds remaining.
Now the stage was set. Of course the ball would go to Gaels guard Matt Dellavedova. Of course he would fire a three-pointer. No matter the result, this next scene would make the One Shining Moment montage. But would that Moment come when Luther sings “…and the rooooooooad is long,” or when Luther sings “… ’cause inside you kneeeeeeeeeew?” Dellavedova, the senior from Australia, either would pull his jersey over his face to hide his tears from the camera or get buried beneath a pile of celebrating teammates.
Dellavedova caught the inbound. He soared. Memphis guard Geron Johnson leaped straight up. Perfect defense. As the ball left Dellavedova’s hands, some of his teammates on the bench raised their arms and prepared to charge. “As soon as Delly got the ball in the corner,” St. Mary’s forward Brad Waldow said, “we all thought it was going in.”
Except it didn’t.
It crested over the rim and dropped harmlessly on the opposite side. Memphis would win, 54-52. Dellavedova buried his face in his hands, then yanked his jersey up over his eyes. On the opposite sideline, baby-faced Memphis coach Josh Pastner exhaled. Then he smiled.
The Tigers hadn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since Pastner sat a few seats away from then-boss John Calipari. They had won 105 games in four seasons under Pastner – who at age 31 replaced Calipari when Cal went to Kentucky -- but they had not won when it matters most. Afterward, someone asked Pastner if a weight had been lifted. He referenced those other 105 wins. He referenced the fact that he inherited just five scholarship players. Four seasons? This could have taken a lot longer. “It could have easily tumbled the other direction,” Pastner said. “Easily.”
Just as Thursday’s game could have easily tumbled the other direction. If that shot falls, Dellavedova leaves smiling. Pastner must spend another year answering uncomfortable questions. Those 50/50 moments make this tournament so much fun for us to watch and so gut-wrenching for them.