It's the dream we all have isn't it? Your team is trailing the mighty, nearly unvanquishable foe late in the game. You've played them before, and they battered you and left you bloodied and more aware of where you stand in the world. But now you and your band of teammates have fought them to the edge, all you want is the ball and a chance. Now, you have it. The clock is winding down. In your driveway, your backyard, your barn, wherever the hoop hung, the dream has played out hundreds of times, the countdown in your head, two dribbles, a little fake, ball back to the shooting hand, so deep, gotta hurry, gotta hurry. For a second everything is silent in your head, the ball is in the air, a despairing defender is at your feet as you land with one arm up. The ball hangs there in the sun, or in the night, or in the lights of a long deserted gymnasium. It's the dream.
The reality is that, for the second year in a row, Xavier has come agonizingly short of the Elite Eight. Kansas State, the same team that slapped the Musketeers around earlier this year, came in the favorite and barely, barely walked away with a win in what will surely be remembered as one of the best NCAA games of all time. Xavier was everything that the Wildcats could handle for 50 minutes of basketball. Chris Mack promised after the win over Pitt that his team wasn't afraid to face anyone, and that was evident from the off tonight.
Jordan Crawford (32/2/2) and Jacob Pullen were always going to be the storyline, and they delivered almost instantly. The game started sloppy, as these games tend to do, but Crawford lost his man on a backcut and hammered down an alley-oop from Tu Holloway (26/4/6) to give Xavier the early 2-0 lead. It was Pullen who accounted for the next six K State points in some way. The pattern then, was set.
Unfortunately, it took Xavier awhile to get into the game. Crawford's dunk to open the scoring was followed by a 19-2 Kansas State run. In that run Mark Lyons (2/0/2) got tangled with Denis Clemente and managed to pick up a personal foul and a technical. Less than three minutes later, he had his third foul. That limited Xavier's questionable depth at guard for the rest of the game. When Dante Jackson (11/4/2) finally made a three pointer almost nine minutes into the game, it was Xavier's first made jumpshot of the game.
The Musketeers weren't dead, though they looked like it. The run to get back into the game wasn't as dramatic as K-State's to pull away, but it was 8-0 and made the Elite Eight seem like a reasonable outcome again. A Holloway three with six minutes to play in the first half cut the lead to 28-22 and may have restarted hearts all across Ohio. That three also keyed another 8-0 run and, suddenly, we had a game again. The half ended with Xavier leading 32-31 and the debacle to start the game all but forgotten.
The second half of this game would have made it a classic even had there not been more to come. Every time the lead was stretched by Kansas State, Xavier answered. It went to six early, and Mark Lyons, Crawford, and Dante all drilled shots to cut it back to one. The Wildcats surged back to a seven point lead, and a Jason Love (11/15/0) two, and Brad Redford (6/1/0) and Crawford threes clawed it back to one. With 5:31 to play, Andrew Taylor (3/5/0) briefly overcame his free throw woes to bury two and give Xavier their first lead of the second half.
From that point on, it was a slugfest. The term "instant classic" gets thrown around far too often, but it seems coined for this game. Denis Clemente scored on a four point play, but Dante Jackson (3-6 from deep on the game) buried a three on the other end to tie it again. Curtis Kelly scored for the Wildcats and then Jordan Crawford, now warming to the moment, drained another three pointer to put the Musketeers back in the lead. Xavier was in the lead and only 2:20 from the Elite Eight, but no one in the building or watching live though that this one was anywhere near over yet.
With 10 seconds left though, it looked very much like it might be over. After Jacob Pullen buried a cold blooded three to the delight/awe of an ever more frantic Gus Johnson, Jason Love battled on the offensive glass and got Xavier within one at 70-69. Pullen took advantage of Xavier having to foul and made both free throws, leaving Xavier down three with time waning. The world expected Crawford to get the shot, but it was Xavier's sophomore point guard who recognized the situation and got fouled shooting a three. With all the pressure in the world on his shoulder, Holloway made all three free throws as calmly as if he were in practice. In a year where Crawford has made, and earned, the headlines, the young man from Hempstead has shown flashes of being a killer. A Pullen miss and it was on to overtime.
Xavier scored 15 in that first overtime. Seven by Crawford, eight from Holloway. It was as pure a clinic in guard play as we are ever likely to see. The two played off each other in a five minute dual virtuoso performance. Xavier was toe to toe with the giant and not backing down as Tu and Crawford just kept landing haymakers. Again, though, the Musketeers were down three with time fading off the clock. If the whole nation wasn't watching this game at this point, it was only because some people had expired from the excitement. Down three, with eight seconds to go, came the greatest shot in Xavier history. Off the dribble and conservatively 35 feet from the bucket, Jordan Crawford sent Gus Johnson into instant rapture with the kind of shot that shouldn't just win games, it should win championships.
Sadly, that wasn't to be. Even now after the excitement and the sadness have died down, it's too hard to put the second overtime into words. Xavier succumbed 101-96 in one of the greatest games of basketball ever played in the NCAA tournament.
And that brings us back to the dream. Sometimes that ball hanging in the lights isn't for the win, sometimes it's just for the tie. Sometimes, your team doesn't knock off the giant, and the fairy tale ending waits for another day, another team. There are times though, when the outcome fades in importance as time goes on. When the shot, the rippling net, and the screaming crowd start to take on a life of their own. When, for eight seconds, the dream that everyone who has ever picked up the ball has lives itself out. For a generation of fans, for the people that love the game, that ball hanging in that air, with #55 rising one more time and Curtis Kelly falling at his feet, just may live forever. "Crawford's gotta hurry..."