It’s Valpo vs. Ole Miss for the first time since ’98. Remember?
Valparaiso will visit Ole Miss for a basketball game Saturday, the first time the two teams have met since Valparaiso’s Bryce Drew hit the shot heard around the basketball world.
You know: The shot. It was March 13, 1998, at Oklahoma City, first round of the NCAA Tournament. Ole Miss, a 4-seed, was a big favorite to beat 13-seed Valpo of the Mid-Continent Conference.
Even basketball fans who weren’t alive then likely have seen the shot replayed multiple times. TV networks play it several times every year when March Madness comes around. It has become one of the iconic plays in NCAA Tournament history. The networks still play announcer Ted Johnson’s excited call:
“The inbound pass will be thrown by Jamie Sykes. Carter is pressuring … It’s to Jenkins, to Drew, for the win! GOOD! HE DID IT! BRYCE DREW DID IT! Valpo has won the game! A miracle … An absolute miracle!”
It surely seemed so: Valparaiso 70, Ole Miss 69. For most, it was the feel-good story March Madness is all about, the Cinderella team from a little bitty conference knocks off the favored giant. In this case, the hero was the coach’s son, providing the high point of Homer Drew’s long coaching career.
For Ole Miss, however, it just sucked. For some, nearly a quarter of a century later, it still does.
Carter, who was pressuring the inbounds pass, is Keith Carter, now the Ole Miss athletic director. He was a junior guard at Ole Miss, a terrific player who led the Rebels with 22 points and 11 rebounds in that game. But his numbers are not what Carter remembers most.
“I have probably replayed it in my head a million times over the last 25 years,” Carter said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “I always come back to this: Bryce had just missed an open 3-pointer on their previous possession that would have given them the lead. No way he was going to miss two in a row. You just could not let him have that second opportunity. We did.
“In my mind we were the better team, but we let them hang around and hang around and then a great player hit a great shot. That’s what happens in March Madness. But back then, I’m not sure I understood what that one shot meant.”
Rob Evans did. That was the last game he ever coached at Ole Miss after winning 42 games and taking the Rebels to two NCAA Tournaments his last two years in Oxford. Soon afterward, he took the head coaching job at Arizona State.
“I remember going to the locker room and telling my guys, ‘You are going to see that shot for the rest of your lives,’” Evans said by phone Wednesday from Dallas where he is a special assistant to the athletic director at SMU.
In all, Evans spent 48 years as a college coach after four years as a college player. Says he, “That Valpo game was without a doubt the lowest feeling I ever had in basketball. For us to lose that game in those final seconds, everything had to go right for them and everything had to go wrong for us. And I will forever believe we had a team capable of going deep in that tournament, the Elite Eight or the Final Four.”
That was a fabulous Ole Miss team, one of the best in Rebel basketball history. Led by All American Ansu Sesay, the Rebels were in the nation’s Top 25 the entire season and finished the regular season ranked No. 10. They won at Kentucky. They swept Mississippi State. They thrashed LSU. Twice. They won the SEC West with a 12-4 conference record and finished 22-7 overall. They were a tough, physical team that played especially hard on defense. They were deep in talent. The backcourt was terrific with starting point guard Michael White and wing-man Carter. Sharp-shooting sixth man Joezon Darby provided instant energy and a scoring boost off the bench. Reserve point guards Jason “Buck” Flanagan and Jason Smith would have started for many teams. Center Anthony Boone was an enforcer inside and the team’s spiritual leader, gimpy knees and all. Freshman Rahim Lockhart provided quality depth inside.
They were basketball savvy, too. White is now the head coach at Georgia after successful runs at Louisiana Tech and Florida. Boone is the head coach at Central Arkansas. Lockhart coaches Jones College. Flanigan coaches at Holmes Community College. Sesay, after a long professional career, is an assistant coach at Texas Southern. Darby runs a highly successful basketball training academy Dallas. And Carter, of course, now hires and fires coaches.
Ole Miss was a 10-point favorite over Valpo. Thanks to Carter, who made 4 of 7 3-pointers and tied Drew for game-high scoring with 22 points, the Rebels led most of the way. They were up by four points at halftime and still led by two points going into the final seconds. And then, as Evans put it, everything had to go right for Valpo, wrong for Ole Miss. Sesay rebounded Drew’s miss and was fouled with 4.2 seconds remaining and the Rebels leading 69-67. Sesay could have put the game away, but Sesay, normally a proficient free throw shooter, missed both. Carter battled for the rebound but the ball went out of bounds on the sidelines in front of the Ole Miss bench. Only 2.5 seconds remained. Nearly 25 years later, Carter has vivid memories.
“The official said it went off of me, but I am almost certain I did not I touch it last,” Carter said. “And then when they let them in-bound the ball from the end of the court instead of in front of our bench, which would have been a more difficult angle to make that pass. Still, you have to give them credit for making the play.”
Said Evans, “If the ball just stays in bounds after the missed free throw, we win.”
Still, Valpo had to go the length of the court. That’s hard to do in 2 and half seconds, less time than it took you to read this sentence.
Carter, a high leaper, fronted the in-bounds pass by Sykes. Carter jumped high, as Sykes faked as if to pass. Then, as Carter came down, Sykes rifled a ball down the floor to teammate Bill Jenkins, just over the finger tips of a leaping Lockhart. Jenkins quickly shoveled the ball to Drew, who swished a running 20-footer at the buzzer
“When he shot it, I knew it was in,” Evans said. “Buck (Flanagan) was covering Bryce and took his eyes off him just a split second when the pass was coming down the court. That’s all it took.”
Said Lockhart, “It felt like a death in the family.”
In four months, it will have been 25 years since Drew’s deed was done. In the ensuing years, both Carter and Evans have become friends with Bryce Drew, who now coaches at Grand Canyon University in Phoenix after an NBA career and a stint as the head coach at Vanderbilt.
“Such a good guy, such a good family,” Carter says of Drew, who married a Jackson native, the former Tara Thibodeaux, an accomplished dancer and choreographer.
As it turns out, Evans’ grandson and Bryce and Tara’s son, Homer Drew’s grandson, are teammates on a youth basketball team in Phoenix. What are the odds?
One more note: A man named Bryce Drew (no relation to the more famous Bryce Drew), is now the Manager of Human Relations at Ole Miss. Says Keith Carter, chuckling, “This Bryce Drew is a really good guy, too, but I gotta tell you, it took me a while to get past his name.”