No doubt Ryan wanted to leave the scene of the final possession as quickly as possible. Still, he waited.
Finally, his senior point guard, Jordan Taylor — who had played superbly all night but had been forced to rush a fallaway, NBA-length three-pointer because the Syracuse zone defense didn’t crumble in the final seconds — walked slowly up to his coach, the last Wisconsin player off the court.
Ryan put his hand on Taylor’s head and whispered something in his ear. Taylor nodded, then collapsed in Ryan’s arms in tears, just as his legs had collapsed underneath him when the final buzzer sounded and he realized his career was over.
“I said a couple things to him,” Ryan said about 30 minutes later, his voice soft but full of pride. “He’s been around me a long time so he understood.” He paused. “It’s the kind of thing you have to be a player or a coach to really understand.”
No doubt the emotions they shared at that moment were special, but in a real sense they were emotions anyone watching could understand: Endings hurt, especially the kind that all but one team each season ultimately suffers. They hurt even more when they are sudden and come after two hours of grinding, intense, every-possession-matters basketball.
“One of the best games I’ve been a part of in a long time,” Syracuse Coach Jim Boeheim said. “It may be the best a team has ever played against us and not beaten us. They made 14 threes and we still managed somehow to win the game.”
The Badgers needed to pitch a perfect game to beat Syracuse.
They almost pulled it off.
During the first 15 minutes of the second half, Wisconsin made 9 of 12 three-point shots against Syracuse’s impeccable 2-3 zone, including six in a row. Even though they struggled all night to find shots — the shot clock seemed to be under five seconds on almost every possession — the Badgers somehow got the ball where it had to go just enough to stay in the game.
On Wednesday, Ryan told a story about a close friend who asked him how he planned to attack the Syracuse zone. “We’ll shoot from half-court,” Ryan told him. “I think that way we’ll be open — at least for a while.”
His joke almost proved prophetic.
“We got a lot of looks from outside and we took them,” Ryan said. “We took what they gave us. That’s how we survive.”
Had they survived this game it would have been a remarkable upset if only because Syracuse played so well and was still one possession from losing the game. Ryan shook his head. “Man, we were so close.”
After all the ebb and flow of nearly 40 minutes, the game came down to the final 15.5 seconds after Kris Joseph had missed the front end of a one-and-one with Syracuse leading 64-63. Wisconsin got the ball off the ensuing scramble and Ryan elected not to call a timeout, even though he had rushed Jared Berggren to the scorer’s table to try to get him back in the game.
Berggren, the prototypical Wisconsin big guy — he’s from Princeton, Minn., population 4,898 — was 6 of 7 from the field and 3 of 3 from three-point range, but Ryan decided not to chance an inbounds pass after a timeout with only one play-stoppage left.
“You don’t want to leave an in-bounder with no timeouts,” he said. “I thought we were fine.”
Whether Berggren’s presence would have made any difference is tough to say because the ball was going to be in Taylor’s hands regardless of who else was on the floor. Taylor, who had 17 points and six assists, is the heart and soul of Wisconsin’s team, the senior point guard everyone looks up to — including the coaches.
But as he searched for a seam to attack the zone one last time with a drive or a pass to an open man, the defense kept pushing him away from the basket. Finally, with the clock winding down, he backed away to clear space and launched from 25 feet.
“Honestly it felt good coming out of my hand,” he said. “When I saw it come up short it was kind of heartbreaking. It came down to them making one more shot, getting one more stop.”
As Taylor’s shot floated up short of the rim, hands from both teams reached for it. The ball was batted around until Josh Gasser finally grabbed it as he was falling toward the baseline. His desperate fling was wide left as the buzzer sounded. He ended up on the floor, not moving for several seconds. That’s when Taylor’s legs gave out on him.
Steve Kerr, who is as good a TV analyst as there is, thinks about his last college game at Arizona — a loss in the 1988 Final Four to Oklahoma — almost every day. “I’m still not over it,” he said on Thursday morning. “You work for so long and you work so hard and boom, like that, it’s over. It hits you hard and fast. That’s why, with all the celebrating and jumping around at the end of these games, I always focus on the guys who have lost. Even now, it’s tough to watch.”
The Syracuse players didn’t face that moment Thursday because they dug in and produced their best defense when they absolutely had to or face that sudden ending Kerr remembers so vividly.
Instead, it was Wisconsin that felt that searing pain.
This was a game filled with wonderful plays and true basketball brilliance on both ends. And yet the enduring memory will be that of a a 64-year-old coach and a 22-year-old kid sharing a final walk off the court together.
A quiet moment in a very loud building, worthy of the tears that were shed.
For more columns by John Feinstein, go to washingtonpost.com/feinstein. For more by the author, visit his blog at www.feinsteinonthebrink.com.