Catharsis for Tom Crean and Indiana
Buzzer-beating 3 takes down No. 1 Kentucky and brings IU back to national prominence
BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Surrounded by security guards as he circumnavigated through the bowels of Assembly Hall, Tom Crean stopped every fourth or fifth step.
First there was a hug for his wife, Joani. A fan walking by needed a high-five. Then it was a crowd of students with camera phones, asking for pictures, screaming, "We love you, coach Crean," and another begging for his hat to be signed.
While a party three long years in the making still raged on the court, the private celebration for Crean was muted by comparison but every bit as meaningful.
Crean came to Indiana on the dreams and visions of what the program used to be, convinced it could be rebuilt and that he could be the architect.
But dreams sometimes don't come true, and as the building came more incrementally than even die-hard Hoosiers fans could stomach -- from six wins to 10 to 12 -- the visions grew a little cloudier with each passing season.
And then Christian Watford hit a 3-pointer for the ages Saturday, a stunning buzzer-beater that, in the blink of an eye, sent No. 1 Kentucky to its first loss 73-72 and signaled Indiana's return to the national basketball consciousness.
"It's indescribable," Watford said. "I don't even know what happened. I couldn't really tell you. It's a great feeling. I haven't felt anything like that. It's probably the most memorable moment of my life, definitely my career."
Crean was quick to say this wasn't the "exclamation point" on the season, and that is what a coach needs to say. There are still 22 regular-season games and three months of basketball left to play, and nothing negates a win over No. 1 Kentucky more quickly than a bad loss to Notre Dame a week from now.
But this is the moment, the one Crean has been waiting for and the one fans have been longing for since Kelvin Sampson left the once-proud Hoosiers in a rubble of NCAA shame.
It had been nine long years since the Hoosiers knocked off a No. 1 team and three since they beat a top-10 program, a statistical reality that says all anyone needs to know about IU's recent struggles. But in case that's not enough, how about these numbers: Heading into this season, the Hoosiers were 28-66 under Crean, 8-46 in the Big Ten.
"This is one of the most shared moments, maybe the most shared moment I've ever been a part of," Crean said. "You want to share it with so many people."
And he did, basking in the afterglow like the pied piper of restored pride, while all around him that once-cloudy vision finally crystallized.
There was the frenzied crowd, one that set and reset the fever pitch as the game went on, rejoicing in a moment that was as much catharsis as it was celebration. The older ones, the ones who can recite the rich history as well as their elementary school lessons, sat in almost stunned silence.
"I've been coming to games since 1954 and I've never seen anything like this. Never," said Roger Tobias, class of 1955. "I can't tell you what it means. It's just. It's just wow. Finally. We've been waiting for this for a long time."
The students mobbed the floor in a court-storming extraordinaire.
They had been waiting for this game for figuratively years and literally hours. Students tried to camp out at the beginning of the week but were told they couldn't set up tents.
Instead the line formed at 7 a.m. for the 5:15 p.m. tip.
Amid the celebration, they joined the band in "Hey Baby," before joining together for a ringing rendition of the alma mater, hanging around a good 15 minutes before even thinking about heading to the exits.
Watford, Will Sheehey and Victor Oladipo hopped on top of the scorer's table to lead the singing and the fun. Oladipo eventually climbed into the stands to celebrate with his mother, in from Maryland for one of her few visits.
"People always asked me, why did I go so far away, to farm country," said Oladipo, who finished with 13 points and seven rebounds. "I tell them, first of all, it's not farm country. But I tell them that it's Indiana, and it's the truth. This is Indiana. I'm speechless. It was so loud, my head still hurts. I need some ibuprofen."
After he extricated himself from a student scrum, Watford pulled his father, Ernest, onto the scorer's table alongside him.
"It was my idea," Ernest said. "The guys were telling me to get up there, and I almost got killed getting through, but I wanted to be there to celebrate with them. They've waited a long time for this."
The arrival of freshman Cody Zeller has been interpreted as the sign of Indiana's change in fortunes, and there is no arguing Zeller is the impact player the Hoosiers have needed.
Yet it is telling that it was Watford, a junior, and Verdell Jones, a senior, who executed the final play.
They came to Bloomington on little more than a hope and a prayer, and opted to stick it out when plenty of others suggested they bolt.
It is their maturity, as much as it is Zeller's talent, that has allowed IU to get off to its first 9-0 start since 1989, with almost more wins by mid-December than it had in two of the three previous seasons.
And it is their maturity that allowed the Hoosiers to win a game they never would have won in recent previous years. "We went through some tough years but we stuck it out," Jones said. "I'm particularly proud of the senior class. It would have been easy to transfer or quit, and now, the fruits of our labor are starting to pay off. This is the first step."
I tell them that it's Indiana, and it's the truth. This is Indiana. I'm speechless. It was so loud, my head still hurts. I need some ibuprofen.” -- Indiana's Victor Oladipo
The Hoosiers twice surrendered 10-point leads, turning the energy in the building into more of a sense of foreboding.
They took the lead 71-70 with 48 seconds to go when Indiana native Marquis Teague drove the lane for a nearly uncontested layup.
Watford missed a jumper on IU's next possession, and Davis corralled the rebound. Zeller immediately fouled the freshman, but the 55 percent free throw shooter hit the front end of the one-and-one.
After a timeout, Oladipo, who had matched the Cats' athleticism play for play for much of the game, drove from the elbow into the paint but lost the handle on the ball, and Doron Lamb scooped it up. Oladipo fouled him, sending Lamb to the line for the bonus.
He missed the first, surely conjuring up horrific visions of deja vu for John Calipari. It was in 2008 in San Antonio that his Memphis team lost a national championship at the free throw line, clanking its way out of a trophy when it allowed Mario Chalmers to drain a 3 that forced overtime.
Lamb did make the second to give Kentucky a 72-70 lead.
"I had a lot of confidence going to the line at the end, crunch time, and I tried to make the clutch foul shot go but I missed one," said Lamb, who was 7-of-11 from the line and part of UK's 10-of-17 performance from the charity stripe. "Things happen. Everybody can't make every foul shot they take."
Still, Kentucky seemed to have an advantage. With only four team fouls in the book and 5.6 seconds left in the game, the Wildcats could have fouled to, at the very least, upset Indiana's rhythm.
Instead, Jones took the inbounds pass and, using a midcourt screen from Zeller, sped past the defenders. Teague tried to swipe him but missed, and Jones dribbled in front of his own bench, drawing the defense.
At the last second, he deftly flipped the ball back to Watford.
"I knew Christian was sprinting behind me, trailing me," Jones said. "I drove and I heard him yell, 'V, V,' and I turned around and passed him the ball. The rest is history."
While the celebration continued, Crean took a minute to absorb it all. As a graduate assistant at Michigan State, he always was captured by a photograph in Tom Izzo's office. It was from the 1989-90 season, after the Spartans won the Big Ten championship.
The photograph is from behind, showing Izzo standing quietly by himself, watching the frenzy in front of him.
And so he did the same.
"Our fans deserve that. They deserve to storm the court. They deserve to stand on chairs and tables and be excited," Crean said. "They do, and our players deserve it."
He failed to add the other piece.
Maybe he deserved it, too.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Dana on Twitter: @dgoneil1.