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Everyone remembers March’s iconic shots fondly except the guys who defended them

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Kentucky's Deron Feldhaus tries in vain to defend Christian Laettner's famous 1992 turn-around jumper (AP)

Fifteen years after Valparaiso's Bryce Drew sank one of the most iconic buzzer beaters in NCAA tournament history at his expense, former Ole Miss guard Jason Flanigan has discovered an unexpected benefit of the most painful moment of his playing days.

It has made him better at his job.

Flanigan, head coach at Holmes Community College in Goodman, Miss., often tells his players about the mistake he made that gave Drew the space he needed for a clean look at the rim. Since only 1.5 seconds remained in the game when Bill Jenkins caught a baseball pass at the top of the key, Flanigan assumed the big man only had time to turn and shoot and couldn't recover quickly enough when Jenkins made a touch pass to Drew streaking down the sideline instead.

Sometimes Flanigan, will bring up that sequence to remind his players not to let their focus drift when they have a late lead because a lot can change in a few seconds. Other times, Flanigan will harp on the importance of the late-game out-of-bounds plays he has his team practice several times a week so it is as prepared in that situation as Valparaiso was that day in 1998.

"They had worked on that play in practice many times, so as a coach, I've made sure I've done the same thing," Flanigan said. "We work on last-second plays all the time. That way going into a timeout, instead of drawing up something the guys haven't run and don't know how to execute, they're already familiar with it."

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Everyone remembers Drew's 3-pointer, Christian Laettner's turnaround jumper or Tyus Edney's coast-to-coast dash, but it's easy to forget about the guys like Flanigan who were responsible for defending those extraordinary NCAA tournament shots. Those former players cringe every year when the calendar turns from February to March because they know they're about to be inundated with replays of their worst basketball moment and calls asking them to relive it.

Jason Sutherland, the Missouri guard who Edney blew by off the dribble in the final seconds of a 1995 second-round game, said he gets between 20 and 50 calls and texts from friends ribbing him when the clip airs every March. Donald Watts Jr., the Washington guard whose erstwhile game-winning 3-pointer was nullified by Rip Hamilton's 1998 Sweet 16 buzzer beater, said strangers still approach him in Seattle, admit they know he doesn't want to talk about the UConn game, then launch into a conversation about it anyway.

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Even though former Clemson forward Sean Tyson moved to faraway Saskatoon, Saskatchewan to train young Canadian prospects, he still can't escape questions about ex-UConn star Tate George's famous shot in the 1990 NCAA tournament. Kids he trains or friends who don't know the story inevitably ask if it's really him defending George when they stumble across a clip of the UConn standout catching a full-court pass and burying the baseline jump shot that helped catapult the Huskies to prominence.

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Howard Triche's closeout was too late to prevent Keith Smart from sinking his title-clinching jumper in 1987 ( …

"Every time around March Madness, I become the most popular guy in my neighborhood," Tyson said with a chuckle. "People who never knew me or wanted to know me before want to know if it's me. I have to say, 'Painfully yes,' for the 20th year in a row. Even in Canada, I can't get away from it."

Avoiding highlights of the shots that came at their expense is unrealistic for guys like Tyson, but most have moved on sufficiently not to let the moment consume them. Few guys have watched the entirety of the games in question more than once or twice, nor have they gone out of their way to get to know the player who beat the buzzer against them.

Deron Feldhaus, the Kentucky forward responsible for defending Laettner's famous turnaround jump shot in the 1992 East regional finals, passed on the chance to meet the ex-Duke star when he participated in an Oct. 2011 charity game at Rupp Arena. Howard Triche, the Syracuse forward who didn't close out hard enough on Keith Smart's national title-clinching baseline jump shot in 1987, said his only knowledge of Smart for a while came via the reporters who annually called both players about the game.

"We knew what each-other was doing for 10 years because we'd get calls every year at this time," Triche said. "They'd tell me what Keith was doing and I'm sure they did the same on the other end."

Most of the guys responsible for defending famous buzzer beaters are more proud to have been part of a NCAA tournament game that's still discussed than they are resentful of the outcome, but that doesn't mean there aren't some lingering regrets.

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Sutherland still wonders what happened to the teammate who was supposed to come double team Edney and force him to give up the ball. Tyson wishes he had contested George's shot more forcefully instead of being wary of a foul. And Feldhaus believes he should have been more assertive going after Duke's baseball pass to Laettner.

"Everyone wants to talk about whether Coach Pitino should have put someone on the ball, but I would never second-guess Coach Pitino," Feldhaus said. "He's one of the best coaches ever. I think what he regrets more than anything is telling everyone not to foul. That's probably the biggest reason we played a little bit timid and we weren't as aggressive as we should have been trying to defend the pass. We didn't want to put him on the line because you knew he was going to make them."

For those players who have remained involved in basketball, the memory of their last-second heartbreak influences what they emphasize to young players.

Watts, a prolific scorer at Washington, actually harps on rebounding as much as anything in his current role running camps and clinics in the Seattle area. One reason for that is Hamilton's 1998 game winner against the Huskies came on UConn's fourth field goal attempt in the final seven seconds.

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"I'm so serious about rebounding," Watts said. "I talk to my guys about rebounding all the time. We do so much dribbling and shooting, but at the end of the day it's the little things. We had a lot of situations like that the whole [1998] season where we were in a close game and we couldn't quite close the deal, and it was usually not because we couldn't put the ball in the basket."

The storybook ending for Flanigan would be to have his Holmes Community College team win at the buzzer on a play he drew up the same way Valparaiso did to his Ole Miss team 15 years ago. So far, however, that hasn't materialized.

Twice against Mississippi Gulf Coast during the 2011-12 season, Flanigan's team had a chance to either win the game or force overtime in the last few seconds of regulation. In the first game, Holmes only managed a halfcourt heave and lost in overtime. The second time, the Bulldogs failed to attempt a shot.

"I was so hurt," Flanigan said. "That's the last thing you want as a coach is to not get the shot off."

More last-second heartbreak for a man who has experienced more than his share already.

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