LEXINGTON, Ky. – The four managers leaning against the wall outside the Davidson locker room were doubled over as if they'd just been punched in the stomach.
Which, in effect, they had been. Marquette had just hit the underdog Wildcats with the toughest loss I've seen in 22 years of covering the NCAA tournament.
The door to the locker room swung open and out walked Davidson coach Bob McKillop, composed as always on the exterior but twisted in knots inside. A sideline reporter for TruTV hustled up, camera man in tow. For an awkward few seconds, McKillop graciously waited through a microphone check, and then the reporter asked her first question.
The coach's voice was a whisper. He's 62 years old, been in the profession 40 years and has never lost a game like this.
"Credit Marquette, they made some terrific plays," he said. "We did just about everything we had to do."
After a two-question interview with the TV reporter, McKillop and seniors Jake Cohen and Nik Cochran were off to the Rupp Arena interview room for the postgame press conference.
The door to the locker room opened, and the devastation was palpable.
The Davidson players sat still in their red uniforms. Nobody said a word until reporters gingerly started asking questions. The answers were polite, but soft enough that you could hear other players ripping off ankle tape or turning on a shower. There were no side conversations.
"This may be the most disappointed anyone in the locker room has ever been," said senior Clint Mann.
"I think we're all in disbelief," said guard Tyler Kalinoski. "We had it."
"A series of events like that," Cochran said, "it's somewhat surreal."
A series of unfortunate events for the Wildcats. A series of incredible events for Marquette.
The Golden Eagles came into this game ranked 317th out of 347 teams nationally in 3-point accuracy. Then they performed even worse than that, missing 11 of their first 12 3s as Davidson packed in the defense and offered up the perimeter shots.
Then the world changed, abruptly and without warning. In the final 63 seconds, Marquette incomprehensibly caught fire.
With Davidson up 54-48, Marquette's Jamil Wilson rose for a 3-pointer from the wing. He was guarded when he launched it. He had missed two better looks earlier. He nailed this one.
But Davidson handled the one-possession lead beautifully. Cohen found a cutting De'mon Brooks for a layup – classic McKillop motion offense – and that appeared to be the clincher with 41 seconds left.
It wasn't. Marquette got another contested 3-pointer to fall, this time from Vander Blue at the top of the arc, and the lead shrank to 56-54.
Still, Davidson executed against Marquette's full-court pressure. It got the ball to Cochran, the top foul shooter in the nation at 94 percent. He swished both with 20.2 seconds left for a four-point lead. This appeared to be over.
It wasn't. Wilson fired up another 3, this one from the opposite wing, this one more tightly covered than his first. It swished with 11 seconds left. The lead was down to a single point, 58-57.
All Davidson had to do was get the ball inbounds and make some foul shots to close the deal.
The inbounds pass went to Cohen, who was trapped but not fouled. He passed it to Brooks, a 77 percent foul shooter but a guy who was just five-of-11 on the day. Brooks didn't look like a guy who wanted to be sent to the line again. He anxiously looked for Cochran near midcourt and fired the pass his way.
"I over-led him just a little bit," Brooks said.
The pass bounced toward McKillop on the bench, and from his view it still appeared Cochran would run it down and control it. But it spun away from him, and his frantic attempt to save it before it skipped out of bounds was in vain.
"I make that pass, or even hold the ball, that game is over," Brooks said.
Instead, Marquette had a scarcely believable last chance with 5.5 seconds left. While the officials checked the time on the monitor, Golden Eagles coach Buzz Williams had a chance to set a final play even though he had no timeouts.
He called for a high screen for Blue to come off and drive to the basket. McKillop, who had deftly switched defenses from man to zone and back – often when coming out of timeouts – stayed man. It was a fateful decision.
The 6-foot-4 Blue rubbed off the screen and had a step on the 6-10 Cohen. He leaped for the block, but Blue's lefthanded layup kissed off the glass and rolled in with a single second on the clock.
Davidson had led the prior 10:43.
Cohen's no-hope inbounds pass was stolen by Blue, who took one dribble, pressed his index finger to his lips and was mobbed by his teammates. Brooks bent down at midcourt and slapped the floor. Davidson's biggest moment since the Steph Curry days had somehow gotten away.
"It's tough," Cohen said. "We feel like we controlled the game for 39 minutes and 40-some seconds. It's bitter."
Said Mann: "We made our free throws. We played good defense. We stayed poised."
Sometimes bad things happen to good teams.
Back at the locker room after his press conference, McKillop was at least audible but still shaken.
"There's an emptiness," he said. "We had a full glass with 20 seconds to go. All of a sudden that glass is empty."
The Irishman from New York who found a home at Davidson and never left, despite many opportunities, has a philosophical side that fits well with his school. Five years ago, when he and Curry took Davidson to the Elite Eight, McKillop was fond of saying, "La vita e bella" – life is beautiful. He has perspective, in a profession that often lacks it.
Thursday afternoon, he tried to find the beauty and perspective in a brutal loss.
"I'll never forget this moment," he said. "I'll never forget this experience – the joys this team has given me. I'll try to put it in perspective and think about people that are in pain they can't control, think of the good things in my life."
How long will that take?
"I'm putting it in perspective now," McKillop answered, straightening his white dress shirt, trying to restore personal order. "I'm pretty disciplined about these things. I understand it. It doesn't get any easier or more explicable, but I understand it."
This is March Madness. For every team it lifts up, another is dashed. It is a zero-sum game with a ruthless bottom line.
That's the understanding Davidson is dealing with today.
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