PITTSBURGH – This is the way the Trae Young era might have ended Thursday. In overtime. In frustration. And partly because of a 5-10 package of continual motion from Rhode Island named Fatts.
That’s what’s great about the NCAA tournament. Some of this stuff, you couldn’t make up.
“It’s tough. You never want it to end,” Young said after the 83-78 loss to Rhode Island. “I hate losing. It’s not in my DNA.”
The unsung freshman who won, the one with the unique name, stood outside his locker room smiling, trying to describe his side of the moment. How he had tormented Oklahoma so with his defense and energy.
“I had to try to impact the game somehow,” Fatts Russell said. “I ain’t one to be still.”
So in a way, the first game of the first round was a tale of two guards.
Young scored 28 points in what may well be his final college appearance. The NBA is out there, though he said any deep thinking about that will come later. “My main focus is my teammates. Those are my brothers, and those are the people I care about most right now," he said. "It’s tough after a loss to think about anything else besides that.”
It was a turbulent day to end a turbulent season for him. The nationally-captivating start. Then the scrutiny, the expectations, the defenses coming at him night after the night, and the baffling Sooner swoon. The ardor for him has noticeably cooled. The first Division I player to ever lead the nation in scoring and assists since assists became an official statistic was not even named player of the year in his conference, let alone the nation.
“He had an interesting year, probably as interesting as anyone can have,” said his coach, Lon Kruger.
It was easy to marvel at how well he handled it all. Down the hall, the guard who had been in his face so much of the day certainly did. But first, we should mention what Russell brought to the table Thursday.
He scored 15 points off the bench, a lot of them during key passages in the second half. And he was smack in the middle of one of the game’s defining plays. Both guards were, for that matter. Rhode Island had just eased ahead 52-50, and Young was trying to get the ball up the court. Russell was defending him tight enough to count his eyelashes.
Suddenly, Fatts had the ball. Clean steal. Then he pulled up and buried a 3-pointer for a 55-50 lead. “Once I got the ball, I saw him kind of back up. It was really just a perfect opportunity. I knew if I hit this three, the momentum is going to shift.”
“He keeps the same face. Like when I took the ball from him, he just kept the same face. I didn’t understand it. But that’s the sign of a really good player, when he can make mistakes and not show it in his body landguage. I’m an aggressive type of player, so I was talking trash, trying to get him out of it. And he stayed in it the whole game.
“He’s going to be really good on the next level.”
The next level may be dead ahead for Young. Russell is just trying to earn his spot for Rhode Island. His true first name is Daron, but it’s been Fatts since he can remember. His mother came up with the name when she saw a chubby little baby eating everything but the kitchen table. A good part of the college basketball-watching nation got to learn it Thursday afternoon.
“Coach (Dan) Hurley always tells me to stay off Twitter. So that’s what I’ve been trying to do, so I don’t really get caught up in this Fatts Russell stuff,” he said.
But why two T’s? “I had to do something different.”
Another thing we should know about Fatts Russell. He’s a competitive soul. You have to be at 5-10. During his recruitment, Hurley told him the only point guard he had seen at the Peach Jam tournament who was better was . . . Trae Young.
“I kept that in my mind,” Russell said.
“We had text messages last night,” Hurley said. “and he told me I was wrong about that and he was going to prove me wrong today, and he put on a show.”
Young was left to try to soothe his teammates in the locker room. “I was just trying to pick everybody’s heads up. This team is young . . . I can’t wait to see the jump from now to next year.”
Only he might be watching it from the NBA.
Russell was free to look ahead to the next round. Duke.
“Duke?” he answered. He said he didn’t even know Duke was in Rhode Island's part of the bracket. All he’d thought about was Oklahoma, and Trae Young. Two guards who passed in the day.