NCAA BK

Marquette's magic continues, barely

Davante Gardner & Chris Otule (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Davante Gardner (right) and Chris Otule of Marquette celebrate after beating Butler.
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Reid Forgrave

Reid Forgrave has worked for the Des Moines Register, the Cincinnati Enquirer and the Seattle Times. His work has been recognized by Associated Press Sports Editors, the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism. Follow him on Twitter.

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LEXINGTON, Ky.

When we say we love the drama of March Madness, this is what we mean:

Marquette’s Davante Gardner, the 6-foot-8, 300-plus-pounder who shoots free throws at an 85-percent clip, sinking two free throws with 4.7 seconds left (as fans chanted “Auto-Matic!”) to put his team up four on Butler and, perhaps, put Saturday’s third-round game game out of reach.

Then Butler’s Emerson Kampen tossing a full-court inbounds pass to Andrew Smith, whose layup was goaltended with 3.2 seconds left to bring Butler within two points.

Then Marquette’s Vander Blue throwing the next inbounds pass out of bounds, giving Butler the ball and 2.4 seconds to make some March magic.

Then Butler sharpshooter Rotnei Clarke running like mad to get open on the inbounds pass, but never getting open, and the pass going to 6-foot-11 center Andrew Smith, who pump-faked, stumbled, and threw up an off-balance shot that smacked off the glass as the buzzer sounded.

Ballgame. Marquette 74, Butler 72. The craziest game yet this March, and one more example of how, in the most classic of college basketball games, the difference between advancing and not hangs on one possession, one shot, one split-second.

“In many regards, tonight, you could say they deserved to beat us tonight,” Marquette head coach Buzz Williams said after his team made their third Sweet 16 in a row. “That’s how thin, fragile the line is.”

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CRUNCH TIME

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Grant Hill’s pass slips off Christian Laettner’s fingers and we might have been talking about Kentucky, the 1992 national champion. Keith Smart misses his shot and it’d be Syracuse, not Indiana, who won it all in 1987. Dereck Whittenberg’s airball catches a little bit of rim back in 1983 and instead of Lorenzo Charles laying it in and Jimmy Valvano running around like a crazy person, it could have been Jimmy Valvano with his head in his hands.

And Rotnei Clarke gets open and sinks his sixth 3-pointer of the night Saturday, it’d once again be Brad Stevens, late-game genius, and Butler, heading toward another improbable March run.

Instead, Marquette won its sixth one-possession game of its last eight. With a streak like that, it’s easy to think of these things as destiny. In the moment, though, it just might have been a touch of luck, and the best thing Marquette can say is that it spent the 39 minutes and 56 seconds working its tail off to create its own luck.

The game itself was as close as could be. The lead changed hands 16 times. Marquette had two more rebounds than Butler, two more steals and eight more free-throw attempts. Butler had six more three-pointers. Each team had 15 turnovers. Clarke, Butler’s leading scorer, dropped 24 points. Vander Blue, Marquette’s leading scorer, dropped 29, including an ice-in-the-veins 3-pointer from the corner with 1:25 left to knot the game at 69.

It came down to not destiny, but free throws. Marquette hit 5-of-6 free throws in the final 48 seconds to give them just enough to be on the winning side of that thin, fragile line, and to do so in the most Marquette of ways: Tough, ugly, and nothing certain until the buzzer.

“The next game we play is going to be a one-possession game, I hope,” Williams said. “I’m not a genius. I don’t want to be a genius. I don’t want to be Mr. Tactician. I don’t want our program known in that regard. I don’t want to be tactical. I want to be tough . . .

“If we can turn it into a fight and make it ugly,” he continued, “then it probably trends toward it helps us the most.”

It felt like destiny after Marquette won, especially after its just-as-improbable, Round-of-64 miracle against Davidson. But the storyline could just as easily be revenge. All season, whenever you’ve watched a college basketball game on ESPN, you’ve seen the commercials showing Clarke’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer, the first crazy moment of this crazy season. The team that he beat was Marquette. Its players have seen that shot over and over, knowing that was what the thin, fragile line between a win and a loss can look like.

“Ultimately, you know, you can control some things, you can’t control others,” Butler coach Brad Stevens said. “We’re going to go back and wish we could have controlled a few things a little bit better, but you do that with any loss. And, you know, we talk about all the close wins over those runs and certainly the close wins this year, and ironically the only commercial I ever see is a close loss, Butler versus Duke.”

He was talking about the 2010 national championship game, Stevens’ Butler team versus Coach K’s Duke. If Gordon Hayward’s half-court shot at the buzzer had bounced off the glass and into the net, it would have been crowned the greatest shot in basketball history. But the ball hit glass, it hit rim, and it bounced toward the floor, and Duke won it all.

The thin, fragile line is always present in college basketball. When it shows itself in November, it might make a good clip for a commercial, but it doesn’t mean all that much. When it shows itself in March, we look at it as destiny. And as it heads toward the Sweet Sixteen, that’s exactly the feeling surrounding this magical, miraculous Marquette team.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

Tagged: Marquette, Duke, Butler, Rotnei Clarke, Andrew Smith, Vander Blue

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