Hoosiers celebrate breakthrough moment

Pat Forde
Yahoo! Sports

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. – Tom Crean was navigating the back hallways of Assembly Hall in his characteristically quick stride as the tumult echoed from Branch McCracken Court.

It was mayhem out there – students flooding the floor and climbing on each others' shoulders, players standing on the scorer's table, middle-aged men dancing as the pep band kept playing and replaying every song in its repertoire. Glory-starved Indiana had shocked No. 1 Kentucky 73-72, and the old limestone building had come unhinged. The Hall rocked like it did back in the championship days – probably even crazier because it has been a good, long while since those days were here.

Back in the relative calm of the hallway, Joani Crean ran up alongside her husband and hugged him as he walked. They'd shared a public moment earlier amid the frenzy on the court, but this was a poignant, private celebration of a breakthrough point in the arduous rebuilding of Indiana basketball.

It lasted just a few seconds before the public caught up to the couple. There was a fan, startled to be face-to-face with the coach of the Hoosiers, who blurted out, "Crean!" He got a high five. There was Dick Vitale, offering hugs to coach and wife. There was a fan seeking an autograph on his hat, and another seeking an autographed ticket stub, and another and another …

Tom Crean signed and smiled.

Undoubtedly, some of these same euphoric people had been grumbling about the coach during his IU tenure. They saw a powerhouse program brought low, losing an unfathomable 66 games in Crean's first three seasons – three of them lopsided losses to the rival Wildcats. Spoiled by victory, they refused to reckon the full extent of the damage done by the Kelvin Sampson scandal – the probation, the scholarship cuts, the recruiting restrictions, the mass exodus of talent.

The impatient and impractical among them saw Butler going to improbable Final Fours and decided that Brad Stevens should take the short drive south from Indianapolis to Bloomington and replace Crean.

Today, Stevens' Butler team is 4-6 after Saturday's loss to Ball State. Crean's Indiana team is 9-0 and ready to roar back into the top 25 for the first time since 2008.

"This is a surreal experience," sophomore guard Victor Oladipo said. "… All the struggles we've been through to try to get the program back, to have a game like that and to win a game like that, it speaks for itself."

This moment doesn't just speak for itself. It primally screams that Indiana basketball is back, rebuilt with the sweat equity invested by Crean and his players.

"Our fans deserve that," Crean said. "They deserve to storm the court and stand on chairs and tables."

Fact is, they deserved to celebrate no matter how this one ended. The Hoosiers would be back even if Christian Watford's instantly famous 3-point shot hadn't swished at the final horn and stunned the Wildcats. In the ultimate prove-it game, taking on the most talented team in the nation, they led for all but 2 minutes and 25 seconds of the final 24:39. They were the more aggressive team. They clearly believed for a full 40 minutes that they could beat Kentucky – even as a double-digit lead melted in the final minutes.

"Our guys never wavered," Crean said.

[Yahoo! Sports Radio: Indiana's Christian Watford]

So even if Watford's final shot had drawn iron instead of net, Indiana would have staked its claim to legitimacy. But that it went in drove home that declaration with a thunderclap heard 'round Hoopsworld.

It's early, but Watford's "3" has a chance to be the Shot of the Year in college basketball.

"I haven't felt anything like that," said Watford, a junior from Alabama whose production had tailed off this season with the insertion of freshman sensation Cody Zeller in the lineup. "It's probably the most memorable moment of my life."

While Watford might never have felt anything like that, the entire final sequence had to feel distressingly familiar to Kentucky coach John Calipari. It was an eerie flashback to the Alamodome in April 2008, and the national championship game between Kansas and Calipari's Memphis Tigers.

In that one, Memphis had a chance to ice the game at the foul line in the final minute and missed key free throws. In this one, Kentucky missed two of three free throws in the final 19 seconds.

In that one, with fouls to give, Memphis freshman point guard Derrick Rose had a chance to foul Kansas dribbler Sherron Collins in the final seconds to unspring the Jayhawks' final play. In this one, with fouls to give, Kentucky freshman point guard Marquis Teague had a chance to foul Indiana dribbler Verdell Jones III in the final seconds to unspring the Hoosiers' final play. Both missed and the play proceeded to a clutch assist – though Teague appeared to be going for the foul when he slammed into a Zeller screen that freed Jones to drive.

In that one, Memphis defenders lunged in vain toward Mario Chalmers as he caught the pass from Collins and arched in a dramatic "3" at the buzzer. In this one, Kentucky defenders Darius Miller and Teague lunged in vain toward Watford as he caught the pass from Jones and arched in a dramatic "3" at the buzzer.

The difference: Chalmers' shot was to tie, 63-63. Watford's shot was to win, 73-72.

[Recap: Indiana 73, Kentucky 72]

The good news for Calipari is that this is December, not April. But don't think this didn't hurt. Kentucky will be around for the long haul this season, but there are issues that must be addressed.

The first is sophomore forward Terrence Jones, who was scoreless in the second half last Saturday against North Carolina and had just two points in the second half against Indiana. Jones finished with four points, one rebound and six turnovers against the Hoosiers, leaving Calipari to declare, "Terrence absolutely gave us a zero today."

The second is perimeter shooting. Other than sophomore guard Doron Lamb, the Wildcats have flailed from the 3-point arc recently. In their past three games, everyone but Lamb has gone 5-of-31 from 3-point range.

Indiana, meanwhile, made nine 3-pointers on the night. A season-high four of them were by Watford, including the one they'll be talking about for years in this town.

Watford had inbounded to Jones on the final play, then trailed him as Jones drove the ball into Kentucky's defense. As defenders came forward to impede Jones' progress, he heard Watford behind him saying, "V! V!"

With that, Jones coolly shoveled the ball back to Watford, who rose immediately to decide the game.

"It felt great," Watford said of the shot. "Ball came off good. I got the ball in the air, had good rotation on it."

Crean and his staff have been working on Watford to keep him going straight up on his jump shot – no fading away, no legs kicked out, just rise and fire. And there was the fruit of that laborious attention to detail: a textbook jumper from in front of Indiana's bench with the game on the line.

"The one vivid image in my mind was how perfect his form was on the shot," Crean said.

Moments later, someone showed him a photo of the shot and he beamed.

[Photos: Saturday highlights]

Crean's demeanor immediately after the shot was almost inhuman. With bodies already spilling onto the court, he was absolutely calm as he approached the scorer's table, where the officials were confirming that the shot was released before the buzzer. Then he jogged after several Kentucky players to shake their hands. And then he disappeared into the background as the celebration surged around him.

In the back of his mind was a photograph from his days as a graduate assistant at Michigan State. The 1989-90 Spartans had just clinched the Big Ten championship, and in the background, then-assistant Tom Izzo stood grinning and watching the celebration.

"I thought that was the coolest thing," Crean said of the photo. "So I took about two minutes and watched it."

It took more than three years of uphill climbing to earn those two minutes. It was worth it.

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