For once, I’m glad I wasn’t there.
As much as I adore covering the NCAA basketball tournament – the excitement, the electricity, the all-out desperation you see in a regional championship game with the Final Four on the line – I’m glad I wasn’t in Memphis.
That’s where the season ended for this year’s edition of the Kentucky basketball Wildcats, on a last-second jump shot by North Carolina that reduced a gutsy three-pointer by Malik Monk to the dusty footnotes of What Might Have Been.
It was as though Monk knew a lot of us had wondered about him on Twitter, pointing out that with the game on the line, precious seconds ticking away, his teammates scrapping and clawing their way back into the game, Monk – the author of the 47-point outburst against UNC in December – was MIA.
And then, he took action.
His team down four with 39 seconds left, Monk drained a trey to pull his the Cats to within one. After a Tarheels bucket made it 73-70, he did it again and seemingly sent the game careening toward overtime. But then…
“I just got out there late and Theo found me. I just shot it like I do every day in practice.” said Luke Maye, the Tarheel forward who will never again pay for his own dinner in the state of North Carolina. Got out there late? UNC fans know he was right on time with the 18-foot jumper that carved a hole into the heart of the Big Blue Nation.
The NCAA tournament is why you like college basketball, whether you’re a fan or a journalist. During the Kentucky-UCLA game, for the first time since I don’t know when (maybe ever) I found myself in a pub during the March Madness. I watched people scream, roar, pound each other on the back and dance during commercial breaks. Fun, come to life.
But for this one, I was in the man-cave, which doubles as an office, sitting behind the computer. I envied my colleagues who were covering this slice of history, the two bluest of bloods in the land (I suppose UCLA fits in there somewhere).
Like everyone, I watched the pile of scrap-iron that passed for the first half, full of missed calls and missed shots. But I saw Kentucky steal away to the locker room, its stat sheet groaning under the weight of too many fouls, and realized the Wildcats had survived that mess to trail by only five. Two possessions.
The cleaner second half saw UNC open up a nine-point lead but, somehow, this UK team fought its way back, only to have its dreams shattered by the same sort of last-second shot that ended the ‘Heels season last year, when they had a national title snatched away from them, four seconds from delirium.
It would have taken at least five more grueling minutes for the Wildcats to pull this one out in overtime, but Kentucky had re-gained the momentum and Monk had found his stroke. You had to like those odds. And then…
Watching the final CBS shots of the players shaking hands, I saw De’Aaron Fox, his UK career more than likely over, moving through the line. He had taken up the slack for his buddy in the post-season, channeling his best Malik as he knocked down three-pointers. And Fox showed the nation that the gimpiness was gone from the ankle he had damaged earlier in the season, darting to the rim, time and again.
North Carolina defenders did a terrific job of making him re-route for most of the game, but Fox found the basket in the clutch and was a huge part of Kentucky’s rally.
Now, he was walking off the court for the last time in Kentucky blue. The look on his face said it all. His eyes were glazed, his face was limp. I can’t even imagine what he felt like inside. When the game-winner hit bottom, so did he. “My body went numb,” he later said.
Then I thought of my pals who were going to have to ask him and his teammates just that – describe what’s happening inside you, please. Tough question, but it’s part of the story. A big one.
Video began to emerge on the internet, of Fox and Bam Adebayo, their arms draped around each other, trying to breathe between sobs. Derek Willis, from under a towel covering his head, describing himself as a “Kentucky kid who wanted to win a championship. I’m sorry I didn’t get it done.”
Willis and his fellow Kentucky-bred senior, Dominique Hawkins, played their best basketball when it meant the most. “I’m proud of these guys,” Hawkins told reporters in the locker room, “and I want them to know it.”
Part of playing big-time college athletics is having to share your thoughts during a time of anguish, just as you do when it’s your guy who hit the winning shot. It comes with the territory, both for players and reporters.
I’ve had to ask those questions before. This is one time I was glad someone else had to do the heavy lifting.