PITTSBURGH — Trae Young’s college basketball career began quietly Nov. 12, when he scored 15 points in a 108-89 Oklahoma victory over Omaha. It almost certainly ended Thursday afternoon at PPG Paints Arena, 2.5 seconds after he slipped the ball to teammate Jamuni McNeace for one final, futile assist.
It was too little, too late, Rhode Island walking away with an 83-78 overtime victory in the opening game of the NCAA tournament’s first round.
And so, barring a miracle, ended the remarkable journey of one of the most gifted basketball players to put on a college uniform.
When the draining game was finally over, Young went to the end of the handshake line, head down, staring for a moment at the scoreboard as if he could somehow will the result away. The first person he encountered from Rhode Island was Coach Dan Hurley, who wrapped him in a hug and whispered in his ear for several seconds.
“I just told him it was a pleasure to compete against him,” Hurley said. “I’ve been on the court as a player and a coach against some great players, but he’s unique.” He smiled. “He’s like Barry Sanders. Every time he gets the ball you think he’s going to score a touchdown.”
Young took the college game by storm early this season, leading the nation in scoring (27.4 points per game) and assists (8.8), making shots and passes that left opponents gasping as Oklahoma raced to a 14-2 start after finishing 11-20 a year ago.
“I made the mistake of watching some of their early game tapes first,” Hurley said. “I didn’t sleep for a day-and-a-half.”
But teams figured out Oklahoma. They played Young physically and double-teamed him often. All of a sudden he was human, and the Sooners went 4-11 to enter the NCAA tournament.
If he has a weakness, it is that he sometimes tries to make too much happen, the product of having a less-than-great team around him. That’s why the Sooners, even with the best player in the country, faded.
Young’s numbers Thursday were typical for him: 28 points, seven assists, five rebounds and six turnovers . He played 39 of the game’s 45 minutes, limited only by two first-half offensive fouls — the second being the type of silly touch fouls the NCAA has fallen in love with the past two years — that forced Coach Lon Kruger to sit him for six minutes.
“We didn’t talk before the game about holding him under a certain number of points,” Hurley said. “We talked about limiting his shots. Our goal was to hold him to 15 shots. He had 18 for the game, including overtime, so that’s pretty good.”
E.C. Matthews, the Rams’ fifth-year senior, hit the three-point shot with 1:52 left in overtime to give Rhode Island the lead for good at 74-72, but the real hero was freshman point guard Fatts Russell, who came off the bench and played most of the second half, scoring 13 of his 15 points while making life as difficult as possible for Young.
“I told him when I recruited him that when I went to the Peach Jam [an elite AAU tournament] two summers ago, the only point guard I had seen who was better than him was Trae Young,” Hurley said. “He told me I was wrong.”
Russell isn’t as good as Young, but Thursday he was good enough, most notably with the score 52-50 after Matthews hit a three-pointer to give the Rams their first lead since 19-18. Russell sneaked up on Young after he took the ensuing inbound pass and stole the ball from him. Then, without a teammate in sight, he buried a three for a 55-50 lead, forcing Kruger to call a timeout.
“Coach always tells me to be myself when I go in,” Russell said, grinning. “Myself is very confident.”
The Sooners scored the first three points of overtime, but with Rhode Island closing off the lane and daring Young to shoot from way beyond the arc or put the ball in the hands of his teammates, the Rams went on a 7-0 run that proved decisive, with Matthews’s three-pointer being the most critical moment. Young missed two heaved three-pointers — the kind he often made this season — and then tried to find his teammates. But with the season on the line, they couldn’t finish. Young was 9 for 18 from the field; the rest of the Sooners were 20 for 51, including 1 for 11 from three-point range.
When it was over, Young accepted all the hugs from the Rhode Island players, then headed for the tunnel. His coaches all waited for him, perhaps to thank him for the season he had given them. The network TV camera never left him as he jogged to the tunnel.
Young grew up in Norman, Okla., so Kruger saw him play throughout his high school years. He knew he had something special on his hands by the time Young committed to OU. He just didn’t know how special.
“I knew he was exceptional,” Kruger said. “But I don’t think I could have anticipated what this season would be like.” He paused and smiled. “After all, there’s never been a season quite like the one he just had. I think considering everything that happened, he handled himself remarkably well.”
Young is 6-foot-2 and is listed generously at 180 pounds. When he trails his teammates onto the court, he looks like a manager who has been allowed to suit up as a special treat. But when the ball gets into his hands, it is like watching a basketball magic show.
Hurley, who grew up in the shadow of older brother Bobby, watching him win two national championships at Duke while becoming the NCAA’s all-time assists leader, found himself flashing back 25 years watching Young.
“He wears number 11 like Bob did,” he said. “At times it was almost eerie out there because he’s so quick with the ball and so daring like Bob.” He smiled. “Of course Bob could never shoot the ball like that.”
Hurley played in an era when almost all college players stuck around for four years. Young plays at a time when any star who sticks around for a sophomore season is seen by his peers as some sort of failure.
Young said all the right things after the game about how proud he was of his teammates, about how much he looked forward to next season with only one senior — Khadeem Lattin — graduating. Understandably, he was thinking only of his team in the aftermath of the loss.
Then he added, “I’ll sit down with my parents in the next week, and we’ll talk the whole thing over.”
There isn’t much doubt about the decision the Young family will reach. Which is why it was sad to see Young leave the building Thursday. Oklahoma may not have belonged in the NCAA tournament, but Trae Young certainly did.
It’s a shame for all of us that his college career lasted just four months.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.
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