Road to Final Four paved by big shots
It’s the closing seconds of a tight game in the NCAA Tournament, and the coach needs someone to take a big shot.
Experience helps, as does talent and preparation. There is another variable, too, that can’t necessarily be quantified.
“Those kids, they’re not afraid of the moment, and they really just rise to the occasion, all those clichés you want to use,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said.
Marcus Paige did it last year for North Carolina with a clutch basket late in the national title game before Villanova’s Kris Jenkins knocked down the game- winner. Luke Maye joined the clutch club last weekend by making a jumper with 0.3 of a second left that beat Kentucky and advanced the Tar Heels back to the Final Four.
Williams drills his players through those situations in practice every day. But it’s one thing for someone to hit a shot on the practice court. Pressure is magnified under the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament. These are situations in which intangibles may set clutch players apart.
Wisconsin pulled off a memorable victory after beating overall top seed and defending national champion Villanova in the second round on a game- winning reverse layup by Nigel Hayes with 12 seconds left. Hayes and guard Bronson Koenig were the headliners of a savvy senior class that produced at crunchtime.
“And then you’ve got to be a little lucky too once in a while,” Badgers coach Greg Gard said before the regional semifinals. “You’ve got to make shots at the right time, get a stop at the right time. ... One little thing here or there tips the scales in a team’s direction.”
The Badgers experienced heartbreak in their next game, when Florida’s Chris Chiozza hit a buzzerbeating 3- pointer in overtime on a play that started with four seconds left.
“But inmy off night when I’m in the gym or something Imight do that two or three times the whole time I’m in there, and it normally doesn’t go in,” Chiozza said.
A look at some memorable March Madness moments and thoughts from coaches and players about performing in the clutch:
NORTH CAROLINA: Experience paid off for the Tar Heels. Williams runs plays in practice with a 15- second shot clock for precisely the kind of scenario that the team encountered in the regional final against Kentucky.
“Believe it or not, we have practices where we play with a 15- second shot clock because I want them to push the ball hard enough to get a great shot in 15 seconds, not just throw it up,” Williams said. “We’ve won a few games like that.”
OREGON: The Ducks may not have had the opportunity to reach the Final Four had Tyler Dorsey not come up with key baskets down the stretch in a 75- 72 win over Rhode Island in the second round. Dorsey hit a contested, go- ahead 3pointer from the top of the arc with 38.4 seconds left after tying the game on a 3.
Dorsey, who scored 27 points, shook off two missed three throws with 3: 36 left to produce late in the game.
“Like Coach ( Dana) Altman always says, keep my focus first on defense and rebounding and the offense, let it come,” Dorsey said. “That’s all I’ve been doing these last couple games and my teammates have been having confidence in me and I’ve been knocking down the shots.”
SOUTH CAROLINA: Southeastern Conference coaches named Sindarius Thornwell the SEC player of the year, but the senior has made a star turn in the NCAAs. Averaging 25.8 points in the tournament, Thornwell has helped the Gamecocks rally from three halftime deficits in their run to the Final Four.
“The one thing inmy history of players who have that is they always remain humble that they can fail at any time. Confidence allows them to step up, because some guys don’t want that, other guys love that moment,” Gamecocks coach Frank Martin said. “They believe they can do it, but they also realize it can go the other way and that bothers them so they stay committed to the task.”
GONZAGA: The Bulldogs played in a lot of lopsided games this season. But coach Mark Few has pointed to nonconference wins over Florida, Iowa State and Arizona, each by a single digit, as effective preparation to play NCAA nail- biters. That experience paid off in a 61- 58 win over West Virginia in the regional semifinals. Jordan Mathews hit the go- ahead 3- pointer with under aminute to play.
North Carolina sophomore forward Luke Maye takes the shot that beat Kentucky in the South Regional championship game last weekend. Brandon Dill, The Associated Press