LOUISVILLE, Ky. — In another room down the hall, the winners were celebrating a game that had turned into an epic mirage. There one moment, gone the next. For Purdue, anyway. Vice versa, for Virginia.
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Down the hall, the Cavaliers were describing the joy from their 80-75 overtime win that sent them to the Final Four, and made last season’s UMBC disaster seem far, far away. More than the 379 days it actually was. “Not only did we silence his critics,” Kyle Guy was saying of his coach Tony Bennett, “we silenced our own.”
Down the hall, Mamadi Diakite, the man whose unlikely mid-ranged jumper at the buzzer saved the season for Virginia and sent the game into overtime, was trying to come to terms with his deed. “I took it and it went in. I don’t know how to talk about it. It was unbelievable.”
But then, down the hall, the Cavaliers wanted to pause with in celebration to honor the player who had nearly beaten them. The player who will go on the short list of all-time most valiant NCAA Tournament losing efforts.
“If nobody asked that, I was going to ask to add something and just speak on what he did tonight,” Ty Jerome said in the press conference. And then he and the others began to speak about Carsen Edwards.
“That was the best performance I’ve ever seen,” Jerome said.
“It was his night,” Guy said.
“He made me rip my play card in half when he hit the shot off the glass,” Bennett said. “We kept saying . . . keep bothering his shots, keep him moving on offense, see if we can wear him out. Screen him, move him, run him. It was like it was going to happen sooner or later.
“He did not get tired, and he kept making shots.”
All that was down the hall. Here in the Purdue locker room, Carsen Edwards sat in a chair, only minutes separated from the excruciating loss that knocked him out of the NCAA tournament he was starting to absolutely own.
He had 42 points Saturday night against Virginia. Virginia. The nation’s best defense. That was after he had 29 against Tennessee. And 42 against Villanova. And 26 against Old Dominion. That adds up to 139, and the all-time record for an NCAA Tournament is 184, so you do the math on his chances to break it, had the Boilermakers advanced and played a couple more games.
Except, they didn’t.
They didn’t because . . . well, this will take a moment to explain.
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They led by three points in regulation with under six seconds left and decided to foul Jerome to avoid a 3-pointer to tie. And then Jerome made one free throw and badly missed the second – he later vowed he wasn’t trying to – and the rebound skidded like a hot grounder toward the other end. And then Virginia guard Kihei Clark, instead of taking a panic last-ditch shot, had the presence of mind to zip a pass to Diakite – “The play of the century,” Jerome called it – who then had just enough time to tie the game, even if it was from a distance that Purdue coach Matt Painter didn’t mind at all.
“I thought, `we’re in business,” Painter would later say. “You keep watching the play and yelling and talking and not looking at the clock. That was the longest five seconds of my life.”
Virginia won in overtime, but only after Edwards missed a shot and had a turnover in the last 10 seconds. So here he sat, trying to cope with a game he loves, that on this night had turned so cruel.
“It’s a tough one for me. Obviously you wish you could get it back, but you can’t,” he said. “I love the game, I enjoy it all, the ups and downs to it. For the most part I‘m just blessed to be able to be here. Regardless of what happens, I still thank God for being able to be here.
“Obviously, things like this will make you hurt, but there’s still so much about this game that makes me happy.”
There were times during the game, as his shots kept falling from here and there and everywhere, you nearly had to blink and look again. That was Virginia out there?
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The uniforms said so. Edwards’ stat line didn’t.
Virginia, the nation’s top scoring defense. Except Edwards put up 42. The Cavaliers had two wins this season when the entire other team didn’t score 42, and two more when they scored only 42 or 43.
Virginia, No. 2 in the nation in 3-point percentage defense, at 28.8. Except Edwards hit 10 of them, on 19 attempts. Some were from so far out, the Cavaliers could barely have picked him up on radar.
As Saturday’s terrific battle came down to the final frantic minutes, this question became the issue of the night: Could one player, no matter how special, beat a No. 1 seed team nearly by himself – at least on the offensive end?
The second high scorers for Purdue had seven points. Edwards had 14 of his team’s 27 field goals. 10 of the 14 in 3-pointers.
“Never do I feel like I need to carry the team,” he said, “because we’re all putting everything into the game.”
On the play that led to Diakite’s game-tying basket, Edwards did just what he was supposed to do. He found Jerome and made sure he couldn’t take and make a 3-pointer to beat the Boilermakers. Diakite, none of them really saw coming.
When the two teams came to the middle for the overtime tip, he smiled and had a word with Diakite, as if confirming what fun the great game was for both teams, at least until one of them lost.
“You understand it’s not going to be easy to win it. It just happens. Just more basketball,” he said in the locker room about the shock of having the lead and the game and the Final Four berth suddenly vanish on Diakite’s shot. “If I would have put myself three four weeks back from now and you tell me you’re going to go into overtime, there’s five minutes for you to win to get to the Final Four, I’ll take it.”
He gave Purdue the lead in overtime with 42 seconds left, but Virginia answered and then came Edwards’ miss and the rushed bad pass on the Boilermakers’ last chance, and that was it.
He had rested but 43 seconds – only 81 seconds of the 170 minutes in four NCAA Tournament games – and it had not been enough. What killed Purdue as much as anything were 17 Virginia offensive rebounds, especially the one that led to Diakite’s basket.
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What was there left to say, for the man sitting at his locker in a stricken locker room? Edwards is a junior, but the NBA is out there, so this might have been his last game as a collegian. What a way to go.
“I’m more proud than anything of what we’ve done,” he said.
Nearby, Painter put Edwards’ night in some perspective, noting he had just gone for 42-29-42 against Villanova’s Jay Wright, Tennessee’s Rick Barnes, and Virginia’s Bennett. Not exactly the three stooges of coaching.
“Those three guys know what they’re doing,” Painter said. “They’re going to load things up, they’re going to make it difficult on him, and he still was making shots like that. The one thing you don’t like is if it spoils that performance. Those performances should send you to the Final Four.”
Almost did. The man sitting at his locker in the Purdue locker room was unstoppable this March. Just not unbeatable.