By Sally Jenkins
Saturday, March 24, 2007
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J.
The Vanderbilt defenders were so thickly crowded around Jeff Green that only a gray-clad shoulder was visible. As Green rose in the air and put the final shot up, his body seemed to perfectly express what it means to be clutch -- the responsibility of it, and the weight of it -- as players hung all over him.
This is what it means to be clutch: You still kiss it off the glass, with three guys doing your laundry right on your back.
As the ball dropped in, Green opened his mouth wide and screamed and popped that badly mauled jersey off his chest. Georgetown's 66-65 East Region semifinal victory over Vanderbilt had come down to one play -- a make or a miss. Maybe there was a parking lot attendant somewhere outside of Continental Airlines Arena who didn't know the Hoyas were going to Green, the Big East player of the year and the man to whom they have turned time and again this season. Certainly, the entire Vanderbilt team knew it, and was waiting for him.
With Vanderbilt leading by one and 15 seconds left, Georgetown Coach John Thompson III called a timeout and set up the final play. It called for Green to move to the elbow, and for Patrick Ewing Jr. to make a backdoor cut. Thompson told Green to look for Ewing, but if he didn't have anything, "Turn and go. Turn and go."
Green turned, and went. And that's when Vanderbilt's defenders surrounded him, Shan Foster and Ross Neltner collapsing from his left and from his right. For a long moment, there was a struggle in front of the basket, a kind of tableau: Green holding the ball, and everyone else waiting. And all of them, everyone on the court and on the sidelines, not to mention the Hoya hordes behind the bench, making that roar that sounded like a forest fire, knew what time it was. It was clutch time.
A lot of players can make a winning shot once, sometimes even twice. But only a certain kind of player delivers in the clutch repeatedly. The clutch player knows something others don't. Primarily, he knows himself. He catches the ball, examines his soul, and asks himself, "So, who do you want to be today?" And he decides to be clutch.
The clutch player knows when to be part of a team, and when to be its leader. He knows that not all shots, and not all moments, are the same. Some just matter more. And the clutch player knows what to do when the moment arrives. The clutch player doesn't just accept the responsibility of taking the last shot; he wants it. The clutch player doesn't force his game, but rather, he knows his moment will come -- and that he'll be ready when it does.
"I like to have the ball in my hands in the games, you know, because I have confidence in myself that I can make plays," Green said. "I'm willing to do whatever it takes to try to win the game."
There were good players all over the court, for both teams, who were something less than clutch. Players who tightened up just a little, or forced things a little too much. Foster went 7 of 17 from the field, including 2 of 6 three-point attempts, and took and missed some terribly misjudged shots in the last few minutes. Guards Dan Cage and Alex Gordon were a combined 5 for 18. As a team, the Commodores were 9 of 27 from beyond the arc, where they are normally lethal.
For the Hoyas, at first it looked as if Roy Hibbert was going to be their clutch man. But Hibbert had long quiet spells. He scored just one basket in the entire first half, awoke in the second to slam in 10 more critical points, but then went dormant again. He committed his fifth foul with 3 minutes 58 seconds to go, an unthinkably clumsy one, when he lunged at Derrick Byars on a three-point attempt. Hibbert shamefacedly came to the bench, and took a seat as a tortured spectator for the rest of the game. He draped a towel over his head, leaped up, sat back down again, and finally crouched on the sideline on his hands and knees, staring at Green, with his palms flat on the floor, waiting to see what he would do in those final seconds.
Green bobbled the ball briefly.
"When I went into my move, I kind of fumbled it a bit," he said afterward. "Hurried up, tried to find it, pick it up"
A day earlier, Vanderbilt Coach Kevin Stallings had sounded almost prescient talking about Green, and the likelihood that the Hoyas would rely on him in the closing seconds of a close game.
"He makes winning plays," Stallings said. "We talk a lot in our program about making winning plays, and Jeff Green makes winning plays."
The final sequence went like this: Green regained control of the ball, found a slit between Foster and Neltner, spun and exploded upward. He one-armed the ball toward the basket, and banked it off the glass.
"It was just one of those plays when things happen so fast," he said. "You just try to get it up there. That's what happened. I tried to get it up off the glass, and it went in. That was just a good play. A fumble play, bumble play I had to make."
The clutch player simply finds a way to make the ball go in. As the shot dropped, and the final seconds expired, the Georgetown players surrounded their clutch player for a mass hug. One thing about the clutch player: His teammates appreciate him for who he is.
"I just went over and held him," DaJuan Summers said.