NASHVILLE-- They frown on this sort of thing, in these latter, post-Ron Artest days. But there were the jubilant Memorial Maniacs, pushing past helpless security forces and storming the court just the way it used to be done in the gym's heyday.
And who could blame them? A resilient Vanderbilt team had just pulled off one of the most improbable wins in the history of venerable Memorial Gym-- a play that was so over-the-top (literally!) it left the stunned Wichita State players wide-eyed, wondering how the Commodores could have executed it with such ease.
With the clock showing 0.7 seconds, and the scoreboard reading 63-63, the paying patrons (and the national TV audience on ESPN1, "The UNO") seemed to have grudgingly accepted the idea of overtime. After trailing by double digits in the second half, Mark Turgeon's gritty Shockers had clawed back to tie and even take a three-point lead in an NIT contest that would mark the end of the 2004-05 season for the loser.
The Commodores had withstood the rally only by the grace of Mario Moore, who suddenly rediscovered his 3-point shooting eye late in the contest. Down the stretch, Vandy's incomparable Mr. March buried four straight treys and a pair of free throws, and the Dores appeared secure with a three-point lead and 0:06 to play.
As Wichita hurried the ball into the frontcourt, Kevin Stallings opted for a quick foul to give the Shockers two foul shots rather than a possible game-tying three-point attempt.
But the strategy went awry, as the Shockers would get a "miracle" of their own. Sean Ogirri missed his second free throw intentionally, and both teams lunged for the rebound. The ball caromed straight into the arms of Jamar Howard, who was able to lay it back in to tie the game.
Instinctively, without a moment's hesitation, Coach Kevin Stallings reached for a dry-erase marker and called the team's last time-out. On a rectangular board in the shape of a basketball court, he would outline a play with the objective of producing two points in seven-tenths of a second.
Everyone in the gym, including the Shockers-- figured Stallings would try to set up a quick shot for the red-hot Moore, who had already put in 31 points. But Stallings had something else in mind. The play called for Jason Holwerda, the team's best passer, to play the role of quarterback.
It was a risky, all-or-nothing kind of play, akin to the "Hail Mary" pass in football. It was a play fraught with dangers-- a foul by a Vandy player lunging to catch the "bomb" could put the Shockers back on the free throw line. Even worse, if the long pass were to go out of bounds untouched at the other end... Wichita State would get the basketball back underneath its own basket.
Allowed to run the baseline, Holwerda sprinted first to his left. A defender followed, but Julian Terrell-- playing the role of offensive lineman-- set a perfect screen that allowed Holwerda an unhindered view of the court as he ran back to his right.
Meanwhile in frontcourt, Shan Foster sprinted for the mid-court stripe on the wing. Corey Smith, who had scored 25 points in the previous game vs. Indiana but had been held to 5 points in this one, set a screen ostensibly designed to free Moore at the approximate spot on the court from which Duke's Christian Laettner had hit his famous 1993 shot vs. Kentucky.
Smith relaxed momentarily after the screen, selling all three Wichita State defenders on the idea that he had done his job on the play. The Shockers converged on Moore.
“It worked better than we hoped for," said Stallings. "We were playing to get Corey one-on-one and just have an attempt at a basket. Their guys switched (on the play) and both of them went with one guy. It left Corey open. Jason was just going to throw, and I must say he did a great job."
As Holwerda's 85-foot strike hurtled downcourt, the WSU defenders realized too late that they had misjudged the pass's trajectory, not to mention its intended recipient. There, behind the defenders, to the amazement of everyone in the gym, stood a wide-open Smith.
"When I saw the guy throw it, it just seemed like it was one of those movie-like situations where you could see time stand still," WSU's Paul Miller told the Wichita Eagle. "I could see the ball in the air, and I could see the guy wide open. I couldn't believe it -- I thought something was wrong. There was definitely something wrong, because their guy got a layup."
There was not even time for a dribble. Smith turned, lunged, and laid the ball up on the backboard. He landed on his side, quickly turning to watch as the ball teetered momentarily on the rim before nestling in the nets. The backboard alighted to signify game's end-- had Smith gotten the shot off before the buzzer?
Smith's teammates and the student section didn't wait to find out. Within seconds, a melee was underway as an overjoyed throng filled the hardcourt. Earlier this season the Southeastern Conference had tried to make such celebrations a thing of the past by enacting new regulations-- but after a finish of this magnitude, the Israeli army and barbed wire probably couldn't have prevented the celebration.
No Vandy enthusiast who was present will ever forget this 65-63 victory. It made an improbable hero of Smith, who had also made a key lay-up in the "Comeback Against the Wolfpack" 12 months earlier in Orlando. That shot had probably meant more, as it vaulted Vandy into the NCAA Sweet 16.
But for sheer drama, few shots in the Commodores' storied basketball history can match this one. It gave Vandy its 20th win and its 24th straight non-conference home victory.
The team now has a frenzied 48 hours to get ready for a road date with Memphis Wednesday at the FedExCenter. Should VU slip past the Tigers, a trip to the Big Apple for the NIT semifinals would be in store.
“I was just hoping for a tip in or something like that," said Holwerda, whose 85-foot assist was undoubtedly the longest of his career. "Fortunately a miracle came through for us. That is exactly what I thought-- hopefully a miracle happens here.
"And it did."
AP Photos by John Russell.