BOISE, Idaho – Leo Lyons all but staggered into the Missouri locker room and, in the moments after he and his team had defeated Marquette 83-79, knew he was involved in more than a basketball game.
"It was like a drama out there," said Lyons, a senior forward. Maybe they should have passed out playbills rather than game programs.
The final 5.5 seconds of this West Regional matchup were almost too much to digest. There was:
• Missouri's J.T. Tiller clutching his wrist in pain after getting fouled on a hard drive.
• Marquette fans booing as Tiller left the court with the game tied at 79 because in came a fresh player, Kim English, who made both free throws for Tiller.
• Marquette's Lazar Hayward stepping over the end line, foiling the Golden Eagles' hopes for a thrilling finish.
• Marquette coach Buzz Williams shouting at referees and Missouri players celebrating a Sweet 16 berth when those 5.5 seconds finally elapsed
"Crazy," Lyons said of those finals seconds, and yet the drama began long before tipoff here Sunday.
It was on this very court during the 1995 NCAA tournament when Tyus Edney, then UCLA's point guard, took an inbounds pass with 4.8 seconds left to play. He dribbled the length of the court, made a game-winning layup as the clock expired and the second-round victory propelled UCLA to the national title and buried Missouri fans in deep mourning.
All these years later, here was Missouri again, in the final seconds looking at the same arena where Edney had broken the hearts of the Tigers faithful. But now Mizzou was here under a new coach, Mike Anderson, who had no ties to Missouri's heartbreak in 1995. However, he had his own bitter memories of Boise. He'd been here three times for NCAA tournaments, and each time – as an assistant coach for Arkansas in 1998 and 2001, and as a head coach at the University of Alabama-Birmingham in 2005 – his teams failed to make the Sweet 16.
Marquette had its own bitter memories, which followed the Golden Eagles here. They originated in the second round of the NCAA tournament a year ago, when a last-second shot by Stanford's Brook Lopez kept them from advancing to the Sweet 16.
Dominic James aimed to quash those memories. James? Yep.
At 6 a.m. Sunday, Missouri's Zaire Taylor cell phone rang. His cousin was on the line. "Why in the heck would he be calling me at 6 a.m.?" Taylor wondered, before his cousin blurted out the news.
Dominic James, Marquette's starting point guard, had been cleared to play. The same Dominic James who broke his left foot Feb. 25. The Dominic James who underwent surgery the next day and had a screw inserted to fuse the fifth metatarsal on his left foot. James would need three months to recover – or so Marquette and its doctors said.
But now Marquette had beaten Utah State in the first round, and had a chance to bury the memories of last year's second-round loss.
With 17:08 left in the first half, the horn sounded. The Marquette fans cheered as James took the court. He would play for only 13 minutes, rotating in and out until the final stretch of the second half.
He provided little more than a tangible sign of courage and heart, and Marquette exhibited both. The Golden Eagles fell behind 46-35 at the break. They clawed back and took the lead as James sat on the bench and squirmed while chewing on a towel. Then, those final 5.5 seconds began.
With the score deadlocked at 79, Tiller had driven hard to the basket – the same basket where Edney hit the game-winning shot against Missouri in 1995 – and drew the foul. Tiller entered the tournament as the team's second best free-throw shooter. But now he was clutching his right wrist, speaking to Missouri's coach and indicating he needed to come out of the game.
Rules allowed Missouri to replace Tiller with someone from the bench. One option was Marcus Denmon, who entered the NCAA tournament as Missouri's best free-throw shooter (79.5 percent).
"Kimi," Anderson called out.
The coach was going with Kim English, a freshman. English had shot only 65 percent from the free-throw line before the NCAA tournament, but had scored 15 points in the first half. Anderson went with the hot hand.
English took off his warmup jacket and headed for the free-throw line as Marquette fans unleashed lusty boos.
Marquette set up an inbounds play, one that was supposed to work much like UCLA's had when Edney went the length of the court in 1995. A Missouri player disrupted the screen as Marquette guards Jerel McNeal and Maurice Acker tried to break loose.
Hayward hesitated a bit, and then an official blew his whistle. The referee pointed at the spot where Hayward had stepped on the end line, thus giving the ball to Missouri. Then, it was all over but the shouting.
Shouting when Lyons was fouled on the inbounds ball and made two more free throws. Shouting when Acker took the inbounds pass and bumped into a Missouri player as he heaved a 3-pointer that missed everything and sailed out of bounds. And shouting as Missouri players celebrated and Marquette players trudged off the court.
When Anderson arrived in Missouri's locker room, he blurted out, "I finally got out of Boise!''
Four trips here, and he was finally headed to the Sweet 16.
In the same locker room, English sat in front of a stall as reporters clustered. He recalled the moment Tiller headed for the bench with 5.5 seconds left and Anderson called out his name.
"He just said 'Kimi,' and I knew what that meant,'' English said. "I'm so happy that he had faith in me to get up there and knock them down."
Down the corridor, in Marquette's locker room, Hayward sat among disconsolate teammates. No one said a word – except for Hayward, head bowed as reporters approached.
He spoke barely above a whisper, recalling how the Missouri player who disrupted the screen had forced him to hesitate and move forward before releasing the ball. Hayward knew it had all gone wrong, even though he said he didn't think he'd stepped on the end line.
Without Hayward, who scored 26 points in a victory over Utah State, Marquette never would have had a chance to get to the Sweet 16. But he struggled to stomach what had just happened when he saw Marquette's four seniors, including James in the locker room.
"I told them I loved them like brothers,'' he said. "I told them I'm sorry."
He was the tragic figure, right down the hall from heroic figures, on a day demons were spawned and slayed. A drama had played out on a basketball court, a drama that to one of the actors looked as if it had been meant for the stage.
- Dominic James