Indiana’s Christian Watford speaks with reporters during a news conference in advance of tonight’s game against No. 1 Kentucky, which lost its only regular-season game of the year to the Hooisers on Watford’s game-winning shot.
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Christian Watford has seen the replay of his buzzer-beating shot dozens of times over the past four months.
Like other big moments in Hoosiers history — the five national championships, the undefeated season, Keith Smart’s winner in the 1987 title game — the image of Watford knocking down a 3-pointer in front of his own bench to beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72 is one of those moments that will be frozen in the mind of every Indiana fan. Everyone, that is, except perhaps the nonchalant 6-foot-9 junior who actually made the shot.
Must-see TV: Schedule of Sweet 16 games
CBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Baylor vs. Xavier at Atlanta
TBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, North Carolina vs. Ohio at St. Louis
CBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, Indiana vs. Kentucky at Atlanta
TBS — NCAA Tournament, Sweet 16, N.C. State vs. Kansas at St. Louis
“It’s kind of over with now,” Watford said Tuesday. “We’ve just got to move forward.”
In Bloomington, moving forward means hanging banners.
The north end of Assembly Hall is covered with cloth representing Big Ten titles, Final Four appearances, NIT championships, poll titles and even an undefeated regular season. The south end is decorated with banners honoring the national championship teams.
If the Hoosiers can beat Kentucky again in tonight’s South Regional semifinal, the Hoosiers (27-8) will suddenly be within one victory of making a surprising addition to the rafters.
But without Watford’s shot in December, none of this may have been possible.
“I think it helped the confidence immensely that they can prepare like they did, that they can play with that kind of intensity and that they can get the right result out of it. I think, very importantly, though, we learned a lot in that game,” coach Tom Crean said. “Our team was very young in that game and we played with tremendous intensity and enthusiasm and did some excellent things, but we were also very young, and I’d like to think that in the months’ time that we’ve really matured in our decision-making and how to finish games.”
The victory provided more than a morale boost or a learning experience.
It also cemented Indiana’s resurgence.
At the time, the Hoosiers were 8-0 but had not cracked the Top 25 because they had taken on schools such as Savannah State, Gardner-Webb and Stetson. Beating Kentucky suddenly legitimized what those inside the program already knew: Indiana basketball was ready to be relevant again on the national stage.
“A lot of people didn’t think we were very good then,” Watford said. “Once we got that win, things changed.”
Watford, one of the cornerstones in Crean’s second recruiting class, became a star. Over the next 72 hours, his phone rang incessantly, text messages and emails poured in, and it seemed he couldn’t go anywhere without seeing the shot in commercials, on highlight shows. School officials quickly added it to the pregame montage on the scoreboard.
Around campus, the T-shirts reading “We’re Back” became fashionable, and some started chanting between classes.
The seniors, who sometimes felt shunned during a 6-25 freshman season, emerged as some of the most popular personalities in Bloomington.
And the Hoosiers used the momentum from the Kentucky upset to pull off other successes — beating No. 2 Ohio State three weeks later, preventing No. 5 Michigan State from clinching the outright Big Ten title at Assembly Hall, winning more than 25 games for the first time in two decades and now making their deepest tourney run since reaching the 2002 championship game.
But the easygoing Alabama native never wanted the attention and refused to get caught up in the accolades.
Instead, he and senior point guard Verdell Jones, who made the pass to Watford for the winner, took control of the team’s next practice.
“There was nobody that came in that we had to bring back to earth or sequester — I mean, none of that,” Crean said. “But I thought Christian and Verdell stood out in how competitive they were, and it really took off from there.”
What happened on that final play, of course, depends on the perspective.
Indiana fans will forever remember Jones dribbling up the court and flipping the ball to Watford, who knocked down the 3 and fell to the floor. Within seconds, students covered almost every inch of the court. Some players and athletic director Fred Glass jumped up on the scorer’s table; others were hoisted into the air by students and still others raced into the stands to celebrate with their parents.
“It’s one of those moments you never forget,” senior guard Matt Roth said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari remembers it another way.
With two fouls to give and 5.6 seconds to play, he instructed the Wildcats to take advantage of the foul situation. But Jones dribbled up the floor unimpeded, made the nifty pass and Watford got the shot off before he could be touched.
Yet Watford had the worst view of all.
After making the shot and hitting the deck, he only heard the celebration erupt.
“I remember being trampled by the fans. A lot of people got on me, and I couldn’t breathe,” he said. “I told (teammate) Tom (Pritchard) to get ‘em off me and he started throwing ‘em off.”
Watford has decided his job is to work toward creating another memory and let everyone else focus on the replay.
“I don’t really watch it,” Watford said. “But ESPN does a great job of broadcasting it.”
SWEET 16 MATCHUP CAPSULES:
The final four teams will move into the Elite Eight tonight. Here's a look at the four regional semifinals to be played.
The only two non-Big Six conference opponents will be in action in Ohio and Xavier. Xavier, though, is in its fourth Sweet 16 in the past five seasons.
The ACC and Big 12 each have two teams alive, and all four of those teams are playing tonight.
Where: Georgia Dome, Atlanta
Announcers: Jim Nantz play-by-play, Clark Kellogg analyst
No. 3 Baylor vs. No. 10 Xavier
Time: 7:15 p.m.
The spread: Baylor by 6
Records: Baylor 29-7, Xavier 23-12
How they got here: Baylor beat No. 14 South Dakota State 68-60, beat No. 11 Colorado 80-63. Xavier beat No. 7 Notre Dame 67-63, beat No. 15 Lehigh 70-58.
The buzz: A big question for Baylor always is whether its talented frontcourt is going to show up. Quincy Acy, Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller each average in double figures, but their lack of consistency is startling. Baylor enjoys a decided height advantage over Xavier, but the Musketeers are more physical. Xavier needs a big game from 7-footer Kenny Frease, who dominated Lehigh in the second round. Frease isn't the most athletic big guy, but he can carve out space with his big body and could do some damage. The point guard matchup between Baylor's Pierre Jackson and Xavier's Tu Holloway should be excellent. Both can get into the lane at will and also hit the 3-pointer. Baylor's Brady Heslip knocked down nine 3-pointers in the win over Colorado, and when he is that hot from the outside, Baylor is tremendously difficult to defend. Xavier's perimeter defense has been solid, for the most part. Xavier's Mark Lyons is a 3-point threat, too, and Baylor's short guards can be exploited on the perimeter.
Where: Edward Jones Dome, St. Louis
Announcers: Marv Albert play-by-play, Steve Kerr analyst
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 13 Ohio
Time: 7:47 p.m.
The spread: North Carolina by 10.5
Records: North Carolina 31-5, Ohio 29-7.
How they got here: North Carolina beat No. 16 Vermont 77-58, beat No. 8 Creighton 87-73. Ohio beat No. 4 Michigan 65-60, beat No. 12 USF 62-56.
The buzz: The biggest storyline in this one, of course, is the health of UNC PG Kendall Marshall, who suffered a broken right wrist (his non-shooting hand) in Sunday's win over Creighton. Truthfully, the Tar Heels should be able to win without him. But Ohio does a great job of forcing turnovers; the Bobcats force 17.2 per game, which is tied for fifth nationally. If Marshall plays or even if he doesn't, expect the Bobcats to swarm in attempt to turn the Heels over. UNC's frontcourt should be its saving grace. The Heels are much bigger and should control the paint on both ends and the boards on both ends. Ohio is not all that proficient from 3-point range, but the Bobcats have to hit their 3-pointers if they're going to win this. Keep an eye on Nick Kellogg, who hits 41.4 percent from beyond the arc. Ohio wants to keep this in the high 60s or low 70s.
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 11 North Carolina State
Time: 10:17 p.m.
The spread: Kansas by 8
Records: Kansas 29-6, North Carolina State 24-12
How they got here: Kansas beat No. 15 Detroit 65-50, beat No. 10 Purdue 63-60. NC State beat No. 6 San Diego State 79-65, beat No. 3 Georgetown 66-63.
The buzz: Kansas did not play all that well in beating Purdue, and the Jayhawks better bring more intensity in this one. NC State has played well of late, and offensive balance _ five guys average in double figures _ make State tough to defend. Still, the Wolfpack can be lax defensively at times. Both teams generally control the boards, so the rebound battle will be important. Kansas could use some production from 7-footer Jeff Withey, who has been a relative non-entity (11 points, 11 rebounds) in the NCAAs. When he is offensive-minded, it's make it that much tougher for opponents to focus on star F Thomas Robinson. And keep an eye on Kansas G Tyshawn Taylor, who becomes too shot-happy at times. NCSU would much rather Taylor be shooting than Robinson. The Wolfpack need C Richard Howell to avoid fouls; State loses a lot of athleticism up front when he is on the bench. He has committed four fouls in each of the past five games, but hasn't fouled out since Feb. 18, nine games ago. He has fouled out five times, and the Wolfpack have lost four of those. NCSU needs Scott Wood to hit some 3-pointers; he is, by far, the Wolfpack's best outside shooter.
----- McClatchey-Tribune News Service