SAN JOSE, Calif. — They’re remarkably similar stories. They just came to drastically different endings.
The Pac-10 was supposed to be a conference of one team, and that team wasn’t Washington. The Huskies were an afterthought. They were a soft group with a senior pseudo-star in Quincy Pondexter who never realized his potential until now. Their season started in the gutter before being resurrected by a late surge, a conference tournament title and an NCAA Tournament bid.
The Big East was supposed to be as deep as ever, but for the first time in four years the mix of challengers didn’t include Marquette. The Golden Eagles were an unproven, undersized squad led by senior Lazar Hayward, who had never been the star. Their tumultuous season only seemed to worsen come conference play, hitting rock bottom after a loss to DePaul. Then, like Washington, Marquette made a run, defeating Villanova in the conference tournament, advancing to the semifinals and earning a surprising No. 6 seed in the Big Dance.
Both teams were overachievers. Both teams had something to prove. Both seniors had a chip on their shoulder.
“That we were even here says a lot about our guys’ fortitude,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said.
It was fitting then that in the final 20 seconds of the contest, both coaches, Washington’s Lorenzo Romar and Marquette’s Williams, handed the game over to their seniors.
“Having my hands on the ball the last five seconds is something you dream of as a kid,” Pondexter said.
After Washington’s Isaiah Thomas missed a 3-pointer with 34 seconds left, Pondexter snagged an offensive rebound and reset at the top of the key for one last shot. With 20 seconds left, coach Romar said he considered calling a timeout. It again crossed his mind as the clock hit 10 seconds. He refrained.
“Let your senior have a chance to win it,” he reasoned after the game.
Pondexter did just that, breezing past junior forward Jimmy Butler for a layup and the lead.
“It’s one of those storybook shots,” Pondexter said.
Marquette was only down by two points, but the 1.7 seconds remaining wasn’t enough for much more than a halfcourt heave — a halfcourt heave Hayward wanted to take.
“Coach was drawing up a play, I told him I wanted the ball,” he said.
Williams complied. The inbound came to Hayward, he took a step forward but pulled up short of a Husky defender and let it fly.
“I thought it was going to be a reverse senior moment, and he hits the big shot,” Pondexter said. “I’m glad that ball didn’t go in. It looked like it was in.”
The shot didn’t fall. Marquette lost 80-78. Hayward sank to his knees on center court.
“He’s a terrific player, and I’m sorry it had to end like that,” Pondexter said.
What makes March Madness so spectacular are the close games like Thursday’s and the last second heroics that keep a team alive. The problem is, for every senior who hits a game-winner, there’s another senior whose collegiate career closes.
“I felt like we could have had some of that March Madness luck,” Hayward said. “But we didn’t.”