Maybe Norfolk State just vibed the NCAA Tournament off its natural axis for every favorite, but as the slight favorite Saint Mary’s Galloping Gaels reflect on their own one-and-done, the inscription on the dagger will read, “Made No Shots Until It Was Too Late.”
After the 15-seed Spartans set in motion a bizarre chain of upsets in the second afternoon game here at CenturyLink Center by beating Missouri, the Gaels faced Purdue, and were face-down before they knew what to do about it.
In losing, 72-69, the Gaels can speak in glowing terms of the frantic comeback they waged to close a game they persistently trailed by double-digits, but they won’t.
Rather, they will remember their horrific shooting, their difficulties guarding Terone Johnson and then Lewis Jackson of the Boilermakers, and the crushing errors they made in the last minute that could have rendered the second-guessing moot.
“If it didn’t sting, it wouldn’t be any fun,” a fun-deficient head coach Randy Bennett said afterward. “There’s not many things you can pour your heart into with a bunch of guys your age and invest so much time and care so much, and that’s why it hurts, because when it’s over, it’s gone.”
But it also hurts because in a game the Gaels were predominantly outplayed, they had a lead in the final minute and could easily have protected it, thus cheating an upset-engorged crowd from yet another. Indeed, as the Gaels were scratching desperately to get back into the game, 13-seed Ohio was beating Michigan and 15-seed Lehigh was smiting Duke, marking the first time ever that two 15s had advanced and only the fifth time ever that even one had done it.
Not that that will amuse the Gaels. They played too poorly to win, played just well enough to position themselves to win, and then failed in the crunch to lose anyway. This, in short, will be a profoundly unpleasant memory for them all.
The macro view takes you immediately to the Gaels’ 4-for-25 shooting from three-point range, including 2-for-10 from forward Rob Jones, 1-for-6 from Jorden Page and 1-for-5 from Matthew Dellavedova, and to Johnson and Jackson, who combined for 39 points on 15-of-27 to shape Purdue’s attack.
But the game that went so badly for Saint Mary’s for so long turned with 4:16 to go when Dellavedova, who had been guarded essentially out of the offensive flow, forced his way to the basket for a three-point-play that sparked a 14-2 run. That run was Saint Mary’s best work of the night by far, capped as it was by Page’s open 22-footer with 44.2 to play to put the Gaels ahead, 69-68.
The problem was, it was their last gasp. After forcing a walk by Johnson, they returned the ball immediately when Clint Steindl ran on the end line during the inbound rather than remaining stationary. Jackson took the ensuing Boilermaker possession and drew a foul from Dellavedova with 22.8 to play, converting both shots.
“The ref said it was on the spot,” Steindl said, referring to official Scott Thornley, who did as he is supposed and told Steindl to keep his place when inbounding. “All I was thinking was trying to get the ball inbounds.”
Then, on the Gaels’ next possession, Page settled for a premature 25-footer that missed the rim by a fair bit, and Robbie Hummel’s two free throws after being fouled by Stephen Holt on the rebound put the ‘Makers up by three.
And in keeping with the evening as a whole, Jones’ buzzer-beating trey hit the rim and fell away, ending a season that had been so good for them all.
“I thought momentarily it had a chance,” he said, “but you can’t really do anything about it now.”
Jones’ performance (23 and 14, despite going 2-for-10 from three-point range) spoke to his eagerness to fill the offensive void left by Dellavedova, who forced some threes early, then went 15 minutes without taking any shots at all. He pressed early against a Purdue defense keen to monitor him above all others, then became a passer almost exclusively before his charge to the basket at 4:16 to prevent the game from remaining a drudgery.
“They played good defense,” a red-eyed Dellavedova said afterward, “and I rushed a couple of shots. We had some good looks too that we didn’t knock down, so that’s the way it goes.”
Not all the time, of course. There was Norfolk State, after all.
Leon Powe-doppelganger Kyle O’Quinn, the Spartan senior center whose 26 points and 14 rebounds would have been noticeable under any conditions, put the final boot in with 34 seconds left by tipping in a Chris McEachin jumper and converting the ensuing free throw to propel Norfolk State into Tournament annals as only the fourth 15-seed in history to win a game. The other three were Santa Clara (1993, over Arizona), Coppin State (1997, over South Carolina) and Hampton (2001, over Iowa State).
And to cap off his best day ever, O’Quinn laughed at the result he had helped engineer and said, “We even messed up my bracket.”
And then the Gaels went and messed up their own. A superb season took a dent in the final lap, and if there is time to be philosophical, it won’t happen until they return to Moraga and reflect not on the 36 minutes they couldn’t find Friday night, but on the 1,300-some-odd when they had the time of their collective lives.
Ray Ratto is a columnist for CSNBayArea.com