They’re back. The Davidson Wildcats, looking the part of the upstart as much as ever. Thursday, it’ll be Kentucky having to deal with them, and would now be a good time for John Calipari to tell his guys about 10 years ago?
That was the 2008 season Calipari and Memphis nearly won the national championship. But there was something else going on that spring. Davidson.
It was the kind of feel-good underdog story that puts the heart into March. A tiny school, oozing with charm, started cutting down one giant after another in the NCAA Tournament, as the bandwagon filled every seat.
And one other thing about Davidson of 10 years ago. The Wildcat sophomore making a lot of the magic was named Stephen Curry.
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“That was Steph Curry’s coming-out party,” teammate Jason Richards would say a decade later. “People around the basketball world knew how good Steph was, but that put him on the map, because everyone watches the NCAA Tournament. We became the darlings of that year, with Steph being our guy, our leader. He took the nation by storm, and ran with it.”
First round, No. 7 seed Gonzaga leads No. 10 Davidson by 10 points in the second half in Raleigh. The Wildcats blow by for an 82-76 win, with 40 points from Curry, 30 in the second half.
Curry that day: “I don’t want to get caught up in this-is-a-big-atmosphere, and people-are-watching kind of mindset.”
Second round, No. 2 seed Georgetown leads Davidson 46-29 with 17:52 left. The Wildcats storm back to win 74-70. Curry goes for 30.
Curry that day on the feeling that anything he put up was going in: “I try to have that feeling every time I shoot to ball. You don’t want to shoot not to miss, you want to shoot to make it.”
Sweet 16, No. 3 seed Wisconsin and Davidson are tied 36-36 at halftime in Detroit’s Ford Field. The Badgers lead the nation in scoring defense, allowing only 53 points a game. The Wildcats blow them away with a 37-20 second half to win 73-56. Curry hits 33, is picking up legions of new fans, including the familiar face applauding from his courtside seat. LeBron James.
Curry that night: “It’s pretty cool to give him something to be happy about and cheer about, and just entertain him.”
Elite Eight, and the long, glorious ride finally ends against No. 1 seed Kansas, 59-57, with the Jayhawks desperately holding on at the end, double-teaming Curry the last possession. He scores 25, but has to shoot 9-for-25 to get them. And he can’t off a last shot. Richards has to, from the next zip code. Wide left.
Curry that day: “It hurts a lot to get so far, be this close to the Final Four.”
A week later, Kansas was national champion. Seven years later, Curry was in his first NBA Finals, beating the superstar who stood and cheered for him that night in Ford Field.
Ten years later, the images of that March still warm Davidson.
“It’s hard to believe it was 10 years ago, and maybe that speaks about what it has meant to Davidson,” said Bob McKillop, the coach now, as he was then. “It still is a very vibrant, very vivid, exhilarating memory that touches everyone in the Davidson community. Not just the basketball players at that time, but basketball players from every generation, alums from every generation, community people from every generation.”
Davidson had endured a shaky start that season, as McKillop loaded up the non-conference schedule. North Carolina, Duke, UCLA. All top-10 teams on the docket. When the Wildcats lost by one point at North Carolina State on Dec. 21, they were 4-6.
They did not lose again in the regular season. By the time they hit the NCAA Tournament, they had won 22 in a row. Curry was averaging 26 points a game.
“Coach asked us if we wanted to play a tough schedule, we knew we had the team coming back,” Richards said. “If we wanted to be the best, we had to play against the best. I remember when we were sitting there -- I think we were 4-6 at the time -- thinking to ourselves, we can’t let this get us down. It’s only going to prepare us for what we wanted to do in March. That’s what kind of the whole season was, a build-up to March.”
Curry hinted at the future with his early games against the bluebloods; 24 points in a four-point loss to North Carolina, 20 in a six-point defeat by Duke.
“He was put on the national stage because of the competition he had,” McKillop said. “So it was something that didn’t wait for March, but March was sort of an exclamation point for what was going on.”
By then, Davidson was the perfect Cinderella story. The Wildcats had not won an NCAA Tournament game in 39 years. But here they were with a compelling star, a fearless confidence, an affable coach, and a lovable story. The nation would learn that Davidson provided free laundry to its students – all 1,700 of them. And when the Wildcats hit the Sweet 16, the school offered free bus transportation and ticket to any student who wanted to go to Detroit. “I want to say about 1200 of the 1700 went,” McKillop said.
“In 2008, when you think about it, Facebook had just started,” Richards said. “There was no Twitter really, there was no Instagram, there was no Snapchat. Social media wasn’t a big thing. So the fact Steph took the nation by storm, it was newspaper articles, people texting, people calling and leaving voice messages, sending emails. That sounds ancient, but people started getting noticed because we were everywhere. We were on TV, we were in the paper. I can only imagine what it would be like if we had social media back then.”
While Curry was getting the big headlines, Richards was having a big month himself. He contributed 20 points against Georgetown, 13 assists against Wisconsin. He had led the nation in assists that season, as Robin to Curry’s Batman. “I kept my head down, did my job,” he said. He still thinks the Davidson mania helped him get a shot at the NBA, though a series of knee injuries killed that chance. Now he’s director of basketball operations at Pittsburgh.
Too bad, Davidson’s fairy tale couldn’t have lasted one week longer – as it did two years earlier for George Mason, as it would two years later for Butler.
Ah, the Kansas game.
Davidson was down six points in the second half with the Jayhawks seemingly taking charge, when a reserve named Bryant Barr came off the bench and hit three 3-pointers in two minutes. The Wildcats charged ahead 49-45.
Kansas answered back for a 59-53 lead with 1:15 to go, but a four-point Davidson possession – free throw, Jayhawks losing the rebound of a second missed free throw out of bounds, Curry 3-pointer – cut it to 59-57. After a Kansas miss, the Wildcats had 17 seconds left, and one last chance.
“One thing I do remember is we weren’t nervous,” Richards said. “We didn’t think we were outmatched. We thought we had a chance to beat them, just like we did any other team in that tournament. That’s why we were in the positon we were, the last 10 seconds of the clock, down two.”
The play was to be a high screen to get Curry some space to shoot. It had worked against Georgetown. Not his time.
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“It all started when his defender tripped and Kansas was kind of in a scramble and running around,” Richards said. “He got doubled teamed and flipped the ball back to me with one second left. It was an open look. Yeah, it was deep. Obviously I missed it, but I would take it again if I had the opportunity.
“I’d be lying to you if I said that shot didn’t replay in my mind every couple of days. Especially working in college basketball this time of year, it obviously brings back memories, but I don’t sit back here and think what if, because I’d drive myself crazy. It was more about the run as a team, than that one specific play.”
The Jayhawks, free of Davidson at last, jumped into each other’s arms, and soon after headed for San Antonio for the Final Four.
“We would have had another shot at Carolina, which we had lost to by four to begin the season,” Richards said. “We had played UCLA. The only team in the Final Four we hadn’t played was Memphis. I didn’t watch any of the games. I did see the play when (Mario) Chalmers hit his shot (to save Kansas in the title game with Memphis), but I stayed away from TV.”
Ten years later, McKillop has no regrets, or thoughts of what might have been.
“I don’t think there’s ever been a question in anyone’s mind who was part of that experience of what could have happened. We felt as if we had emptied our tank. We had this tremendous sense of peace. As a coach, you’re fortunate to have that for one game. We had it for those two successive weekends.”
But he hasn’t watched the Kansas game. “I certainly don’t have any desire to go back and look at some of that footage that might make me second guess.”
Still, he has one second guess, and it’s not the final play.
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“Taking Jason Richards out with 7:42 to go in the game and a seven-point lead. Jason was fatigued, so I took him out. I think they went on a 9-0 run. I was playing by the numbers, doing what I thought was right.”
Richards would graduate that spring. Curry was back at Davidson the next season and led the nation in scoring, but the Wildcats could not recapture the same electricity. His career ended with an NIT second round loss at Saint Mary’s.
But the legacy of 2008 was there for good.
“It changed my life,” McKillop said. “It changed the life of Davidson basketball. It changed the life of the coaching staff and all the players who were part of that roster. They can take that memory for the rest of their lives, it will be so cherished and so treasured.”
Glory can be fleeting. Davidson’s program has stayed solid, but the Wildcats have not won an NCAA Tournament game since. But they have a chance to change that Thursday. The odds are against them, but they've been there before.