You make the kind of shot Drew Nicholas hit for Maryland on Friday night, and you're immortalized. The play will be celebrated in retrospectives, in historic collages, even in an automobile maker's commercials that package NCAA buzzer-beaters as "Fuel for the Soul." It's the winning shot at the buzzer that makes March Madness irresistible, that makes grown men weep with joy or despair, and the most detached among us tingle.
No matter what else happens to Maryland and Nicholas in this NCAA tournament, whether he ever scores another basket in his life, his basket with one-tenth of one second left to beat North Carolina Wilmington earned him a spot in a special fraternity that includes U.S. Reed and Rolando Blackman, Danny Ainge and Tyus Edney, John Smith and Mike Miller, Jarrod West and Richard Hamilton, Tate George and Christian Laettner, and, of course, Keith Smart.
Like all the other buzzer-beaters, you can watch the one Nicholas hit a hundred times and discover something different on each viewing. Watch it once and you'll see that Nicholas launched himself off only one foot, his left. Watch it again and see assistant coach Jimmy Patsos screaming at Nicholas that he had enough time. Watch it again and see Wilmington's Anthony Terrell's outstretched right hand in Nicholas's face as he shot.
Nicholas said Saturday that he didn't think the shot felt particularly good when it left his hand; he didn't think he had enough oomph behind it. If there's a Maryland guard you want pushing the ball from end to end with five seconds left, no timeouts remaining, and elimination imminent, you would ideally want Steve Blake handling the ball. And Drew Nicholas shooting. But there wasn't time for that, so Nicholas went the distance himself, dribbling expertly away from trouble and into space, demonstrating a sense of urgency but not panic, instinctively knowing that five seconds were about up when he rolled the shot off his fingers.
Nicholas didn't get as close to the basket as Edney did when he took the ball the length of the court in the final 4.8 seconds to lift UCLA, 75-74, over Missouri in a 1995 second-round game. But his shot was infinitely more difficult than Edney's, or for that matter Ainge's runner to beat Notre Dame at the buzzer in 1981.
Nicholas's shot didn't have the drama of the Grant Hill-to-Laettner buzzer-beater that lifted Duke over Kentucky in 1992 because that was a regional final, the difference between going home and defending champ Duke reaching another Final Four. And it wasn't a season-ender, like Smart's 16-foot jumper that beat Syracuse, 74-73, to win the championship for Indiana in 1987.
But even though Nicholas wondered whether pushing off one foot qualified his basket as "a real shot" it certainly didn't appear as lucky as Lorenzo Charles's dunk off Dereck Whittenburg's air ball to win the 1983 championship for North Carolina State, or Reed's 49-foot heave in 1981 that allowed Arkansas to eliminate defending champion Louisville, 74-73, in the second round. Reed once recalled thinking, "Help me, God," as he let fly. The basket was so celebrated in Arkansas that when the radio broadcast was heard at a race track near Hot Springs, the crowd exploded into such a racket the horses came close to bolting the gate.
Of the first 40 games of the 1981 tournament, 11 were decided in the final five seconds when a shot either broke a tie to win the game, or took a team from one down to victory. Reed's shot was one of those. Another was Blackman's tiebreaking 17-foot baseline jumper that beat an Oregon State team that had lost once all season. Still another was St. Joseph's Smith making a layup to beat heavily-favored DePaul, 49-48. Ainge's weaving layup was the same year. In fact, there were so many buzzer-beaters on Saturday, March 14, 1981, it changed the way the games were covered by television, first NBC and then CBS. Cut-ins on close games became necessary, even expected. The worst thing TV could do is miss a buzzer-beater live, and taking viewers from region to region for the final seconds of close games became a tournament staple.
Nothing has come close to 1981's barrage, though the 1990 tournament had its own unique drama. In the round of 16, Connecticut's George became one of the most celebrated basketball player in the state's history by catching a pass and hitting a jumper with one-tenth of a second left to crush Clemson in East Rutherford, N.J. That came on a Thursday night. On Saturday in the same arena with a trip to the Final Four at stake, after taking a timeout with 2.6 seconds left to play in overtime, Laettner inbounded the ball to teammate Brian Davis, received a quick return pass, pumped then hit the shot that won the game.
That same season, Georgia Tech's Kenny Anderson hit a 19-foot jumper as time expired, forcing Michigan State into overtime that never should have been. The shot, as replays showed, left Anderson's hand after the clock had hit :00. And if that wasn't deflating enough for the Spartans, Tech's Dennis Scott buried them with a jumper with eight seconds to play. Tech reached the Final Four.
Maryland can't afford to think that grand yet, not with third-seeded Xavier and David West on deck here Sunday afternoon. But there's a sense among the players that they will play more freely now, that they are unburdened now. "It gives us life," Nicholas said. "We get to play again. I can't imagine how bad we'd have felt if we had to charter back to College Park after that."
Before the game, Nicholas had hoped a victory and a 30-point performance would be a fine 30th birthday present for his brother Chris, a financial consultant. "You think this will do?" Drew Nicholas asked in the moments immediately after his basket.
In the Maryland locker room afterward, talking about some of the memorable buzzer-beaters in history -- and there must have been plenty in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s before TV televised every game -- Nicholas knew his favorite: "Edney's layup," he said. Why? "Because UCLA won that game and went all the way," Nicholas added correctly. That basket came eight years ago, recently enough that all the Maryland players know the story. "It's March Madness. Stuff like this happens."