- Michael Rothstein, ESPN Staff Writer
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Josh Pastner walked out of the tiny Memphis locker room late Thursday afternoon, saw the crowd of media waiting and tried to gather them in a huddle.
The 35-year-old appears forever happy, working through media lines and all over the Palace of Auburn Hills the past two days. Since he took over at Memphis for John Calipari four years ago, he had won 105 games and done almost everything he needed to so Memphis would remain at its previous level.
Except win a game in the NCAA tournament.
Pastner tried to not make a big deal of his Tigers holding on to beat Saint Mary’s 54-52, yet his team understood the implications. The players had heard all about the one thing Pastner hadn’t done.
“It’s a major monkey off his back in the grand scheme of things, but right now he’s thinking to the next game,” senior forward Ferrakohn Hall said. “Definitely a big deal, going to the tournament three years in a row and not being able to get over the hump and now you can; it’s a great achievement.”
It is an achievement the Memphis players took personally. They knew they were still a good team -- 31 wins this season and counting after winning 25-plus games the prior two seasons -- but in past years, they couldn’t replicate their regular-season success.
And it almost happened again, as Memphis had a 15-point lead in the first half dwindle to two with 1.9 seconds left. Point guard Joe Jackson had lost the ball, giving Saint Mary’s one final chance to send Memphis home for the third straight year without a win.
Saint Mary’s guard Matthew Dellavedova took the ball on the wing and attempted a 3-pointer.
"It came off, and once it left, I knew it was long," Pastner said. "So it was good. It was a good win.
"... I was totally at peace. I really was. You might not believe me, but I was. I really was at peace.”
As it sailed over, Pastner and his players stayed calm. They had waited three seasons for this moment, to say they won an NCAA tournament game.
The players talked about it in huddles during Thursday’s game. They constantly reminded each other of the importance of getting past this, of being able to finally reach the second game in the NCAA tournament.
"We've been here with him, so we say, 'We. It’s a we thing,'" Hall said. "The whole staff and team, everyone in our locker room -- it’s the thing we definitely have talked about.
"It's a group thing. It’s pretty much understood. Even in the huddle, we'd say, 'Let’s get past this. Let's get over this hump.'"
Pastner’s players understood. As they left the locker room, just after Pastner came out of it himself, D.J. Stephens yelled out, "Congrats, Coach." And Pastner smiled.
Then Stephens gave Pastner what he might have wanted to hear the most: “We ain’t done yet.”