The way it works is, one moment you're up, the next moment you're down. In a heartbeat, in an eyeblink. It will pop out on you so quickly, most of the time you can't even see it coming. It's both the curse and the joy of sports, and it happens so often that it seems commonplace.
It happened again Saturday night, as suddenly and as inexplicably as ever, a phantom decree granting absolution to Ron Rowan, setting Harpies loose on Pearl Washington. And since we can't explain the why, we will concentrate on the how of it.
There was the seamless Pearl leading his Syracuse team in a robust performance against St. John's in the final of the Big East tournament. Just one night after committing 11 turnovers against Georgetown, here was the Pearl with 20 points, 14 assists and just one turnover. Singlehandedly in the last five minutes he has kept Syracuse ahead by enough points to deny St. John's a chance to tie or lead, scoring the Orange's last six points and dealing an assist to Wendell Alexis for the previous two. And, as if to reward his magnificence, he finds himself on the foul line with but 26 seconds to go. A one-and-one. If he sinks the first, he puts his club up by two, 70-68. If he sinks them both, he ties the ribbon around the championship.
And there we have Ron Rowan, the shooting guard for St. John's. He has had a spotty game, shooting a respectable 50 percent from the floor, but handling the ball nervously and precariously. Three separate times he has been caught in midair with no room to shoot or pass, and he has had the ball stripped from him. His indecisiveness with the ball has been the fundamental reason St. John's -- despite coming back from 13 down at the start of the second half -- has not yet been in the position to launch the shot that could either tie the game or give itself a lead.
And now, as if to give him one last chance at redemption, here he is with the ball on the right baseline with less than 10 seconds left and St. John's behind by one point, 69-68. The Redmen have returned to the court from a timeout in which they heard their coach, Lou Carnesecca, tell them in no uncertain terms, "The first thing that's good, take it," and Rowan finds himself looking at a good thing. If he misses, all he is, is shattered.
It goes all net.
He is a hero.
But wait, there are eight seconds left, and here is Pearl, certainly the most dangerous open-court player in college basketball, chugging up the court, his eyes set on the basket, his moment of glory fast approaching. He goes, as they say, coast to coast and with two seconds showing he is leaving his feet, preparing to lay the ball off the glass and collect his tribute. But Walter Berry, the only player on the court as gifted as Pearl, reacts with profound athleticism and blocks the shot. Time expires before another one can be taken.
What justice that leaks out from this turn of events comes later, in the form of the tournament's most valuable player award, which goes to Pearl, who scored 68 points and handed out 29 assists in three games. His eyes are downcast, his expression morose as he accepts the trophy and the applause of the crowd, but he warms to the embrace of Berry, who seeks him out to tell him things that only heroes understand. The irony is that Pearl holds the trophy in his hand, and Berry holds the victory net in his, the symbolic casting of Pearls before Twine.
Meanwhile, over on the bench, Rowan is crying. Such was the release of emotion after making that shot that there was no reserve left inside him. He was overwhelmed. His chest heaved, and the tears streamed down his face making gullies in his cheeks. People surrounded him, hugged him, touched him as if in the hope that the beatitude might be shared. Two words were audible above the roar, and they were always the same: "Feels good!" Rowan would repeat time and again. "Feels good!"
A fine and memorable game in which both teams had distinguished themselves had ended. Despite losing, Syracuse had proven that it could withstand the relentless pressure of the lead and the road. The Orange did not lose this game; in a strange way it was simply taken from them. They had played what their coach, Jim Boeheim, called "a perfect" first half, and they would hear no criticism of their efforts from him. They had set their sights on containing Berry, and they had done so admirably. "The last play, I didn't expect Rowan," Boeheim said, and who would argue?
St. John's had proven that indeed it is a beast of a team, a team capable of stirring cohesion and inspiring self-belief. The heroes came from the least likely sources: Rowan and Willie Glass, who led the team with 19 points; rarely used Marco Baldi, who usually can't get out of his own way, came through stunningly with six straight points at absolutely critical times late in the second half.
"There's a great lesson in this," Carnesecca said after the game. "The first half, nothing is going right, you're looking for a hole to crawl in. But you chip away, you chip away, and, well, you saw what can happen if you keep chipping." He looked over at Rowan and smiled. "Finally, Ronnie hit 'em with The Old Maryanne." The Old Maryanne, in the world according to Looie, is a boxing term for a knockout punch. The Old Maryanne indeed.