Now just 3.1 seconds remained and they were down a pair and without a time out and so they had but one option, get the ball into the hands of their stud. The 'Cats did just that Wednesday night in their showdown with Ohio State at Welsh-Ryan Arena, and here came John Shurna pushing it up the right side and getting two steps past half court and going up for a three as 6-foot-9 Buckeye center Jared Sullinger flew at him with arms extended. Right here, for a heartbeat that seemed to last an eon, time stood still.
Back in the '70s, when the heavyweight champion was considered nothing less than the toughest guy in the world, Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier offered up a trilogy of fights filled with bloodshed and brutality and--most significantly of all--displays of courage that expanded the definition of that word. This was especially true of the oft-under-appreciated Frazier, that threshing machine who never retreated, who waded relentlessly forward, who accepted countless snake licks to his face yet never backed down.
That image, that image of Frazier bobbing and weaving and rolling his shoulders and refusing to entertain any thought of surrender, that is the image that came to mind Wednesday evening as the 'Cats went for their upset of No. 10 Ohio State. For sure there will be numbers from this affair that will be discussed, and they should. There were the Buckeyes' 20 offensive rebounds that delivered them 20 second-chance points, and there was their yawning 44-18 rebounding advantage overall. There were those 16 turnovers caused by the 'Cats and the 21 points they got off of them, and there was their 48.1 percent shooting (13-of-27) on their three-point attempts. There were Drew Crawford's 23 points and Shurna's 22 and those four Buckeyes who finished in double figures, and all of that surely mattered in this one's outcome.
But, in this mind at least, the abiding image of this night is still the 'Cats as Frazier, is the 'Cats never retreating, never backing down, even as they found themselves on a trek that often seemed as hopeless as the one confronted by that mythological king named Sisyphus. Their boulder was the 10-point hole they found themselves in with this game just over six minutes old, and their task now was getting it back up close enough to the top to put some real pressure on their more-vaunted foe.
They had one chance to do that when, down five, Reggie Hearn stripped Buck Aaron Craft and sent a pass on to Alex Marcotullio, who seemed free for a fast break layup. But Craft recovered and knocked the ball out of bounds, and soon enough Hearn missed a three and Ohio State's lead was back up to a dozen. They had another chance to do that when, down eight, they created one more turnover, but here JerShon Cobb committed a turnover of his own and soon enough Ohio State's lead was back up to 13.
Once more, down eight early in the second half, they got the ball after a Sullinger travel, but this time Shurna missed a three from the right wing and soon enough Ohio State's lead was back up to 13. They got it to five at 10:05 when Crawford made one-of-two free throws, but less than three minutes later Ohio State's lead was back up to a dozen. "it didn't seem like we could overcome that lead of theirs," 'Cat coach Bill Carmody later said. "But then, all of a sudden, a lot of different guys came through."
His guys, battered, bloodied, often on the ropes with wobbly knees, did just that, and the first of them was Marcotullio. With his team down a dozen at 5:25, he got his first points of the night by burying a three he launched right in front of his coach. Shurna, after Sullinger missed a layup, dropped a pair of free throws, and then here was Hearn with a layup at 3:44 that pulled the 'Cats to within five.
Frenzy now filled their playpen, frenzy that transformed into vocal disbelief as Craft appeared to travel and no whistle blew and Craft found Deshaun Thomas for a three that put the Bucks back up eight. Still, like Frazier, the 'Cats kept coming, the 'Cats refused to retreat, the 'Cats responded with a three from the right corner by Dave Sobolewski, and then here was Shurna driving after a missed Ohio State three. Sullinger, its star, challenged the shot and bodied the 'Cat and sent him sprawling into the laps of the cheerleaders, but again there was no whistle even as the shot missed.
"It's a physical conference. There's contact on a lot of plays. So," Shurna would resignedly say when asked about that play, but again he and his team came back. Buck William Buford missed a jumper, Sullinger rebounded, Sobolewski tied him up and the 'Cats, with the possession arrow in their favor, had the ball. Cobb made a pair of free throws with 47.1 seconds remaining to put them down three, Buck Lenzelle Smith Jr. walked under pressure from Crawford, Hearn missed a jumper, his teammate Thomas rebounded, but here came Cobb, stripping Thomas and calling his team's last time out with 16.9 left. Now, seconds later, the 6-foot-3 Marcotullio rose at the top of the circle, rose from NBA range and, with the 6-foot-7 Thomas in his grill, offered a three that found only net and tied this one up at 7.3. Finally, at last, the rock had reached the top of the mountain.
Don't let Craft, the Buck point, rush the ball up the court, and then drop into a 1-3-1 zone. Those were the 'Cats instructions as they huddled after Ohio State called a time out. Rush the ball up the court and then choose one of three options. Those were Craft's instructions in his team's huddle and that is what he did, getting separation on Marcotullio and then looking up. He here spotted Sullinger near the basket and delivered a long pass, and Cobb went for the steal and missed the pick and Sullinger collected the ball and put in a leaner over the outstretched arm of Hearn at 3.1. "He had three reads," Buck coach Thad Matta would later say of his point. "I'm glad he chose option number one. That's what it was."
"We were trying to contain Craft on the way up, but we didn't do a good enough job. He got going a little too quickly," said Carmody, and so now it was his 'Cats who had to move quickly, it was Shurna who had to move quickly, and here he offered his shot and time stood still and the ball hit the front of the rim and the buzzer sounded and Shurna's head fell in disappointment. "I thought it had a chance," he would later say. "Sullinger kind of came in at the last second. But I put it up there and hoped for the best. That's about all you can do."
Now all he and Crawford could do was commiserate, and for long seconds they stood in front of their bench either talking softly or lost in their thoughts. Then, together, they sat down on the bench, and here Shurna dropped his head and covered it with his hands and simply stared at the floor. He, like all the 'Cats, had battled bravely this evening. But his last shot had been short, just short, and that left him with only one feeling.
"Just disappointment," he would sadly say. "It's a tough way to go out."