Beyond the Boxscore
TULSA, Okla. — Cory Joseph lingers in the chair at his locker. He answers every question and then sits there by himself and waits for more reporters to come. He cuts the tape off his ankles.
Waits some more.
Joseph just went down in college basketball infamy — with Chris Webber's timeout when Michigan didn't have one in a championship game, right with the end of the Butler-Pittsburgh game in Washington D.C. the night before. It's not necessarily fair. Replays of the fateful five-seconds call on Joseph indicate that the Texas freshman might have been given a raw deal. The specter of a premature whistle will ever cloud this game.
But that controversy will die by the time the first Sweet 16 game tips on Thursday night, even if Texas coach Rick Barnes lands a rebuke or a fine for his comments about the officiating. Joseph will simply be remembered as the guy who couldn't complete one of the simplest plays in basketball when it mattered most, the guy who couldn't inbounds the ball with his team set to advance.
No matter how cruel or unfair it is, you can't loiter in March. Joseph can stay at his locker, but he can't stay in the NCAA Tournament.
He'll be swept away with all the rest of the heartbroken losers of the first weekend, reduced to a footnote as the tournament churns on toward Houston. There are two 11s, a 12, a 10 and an eight left in this seeded field. Along with three of the four No. 1s. Only 16 teams left, fighting for four spots in Houston. That's what everyone will concentrate on in another flash or two. Sure, there will be calls for more instant replays in end-game situations in the days ahead, but then the games will start anew.
Cory Joseph cannot hold back the NCAA Tournament. No one can. No matter how legitimate the beef.
And that's why it's the cruelest sports event of all. One-and-done means instant pain — and instantly swept away.
"We had the game," Joseph says. "I get the ball to J'Covan Brown or Jordan Hamilton and they got fouled ... The way they're shooting free throws it's over. We're up three at worst. We're really up four."
Only the ball never gets to Brown, Hamilton or any Longhorn in a white jersey. In fact, it never leaves Joseph's hands. Five seconds. Arizona's ball. Derrick Williams — who is looking more and more like the best player in the entire field — suddenly has an unexpected chance to steal the game. Texas wasn't getting its W back.
Joseph won't be getting that play back. Ever.
Arizona 70, Texas 69. With more second doubts and second looks packed into the final 13 seconds than any one team should have to shoulder.
"I don't feel for Cory to be honest," Texas sophomore swingman Jordan Hamilton says. "I feel bad for our seniors. They're the ones who will never get another chance."
One of those seniors happens to be lockered right next to Joseph in a cozy BOK Center room. Joseph and Gary Johnson are so close that their folding chairs almost touch one another. Johnson is way too classy to ever blame Joseph. When he first showed up in Austin, Barnes told Johnson, he was "the worst defensive player he ever coached."
Four years later on a March Tulsa night, Johnson took on the toughest defensive assignment in college basketball and nearly drove Derrick Williams crazy. The tournament's best player would miss 10 of his 14 shots with Johnson glued to him like crazy sticks to Charlie Sheen. But Johnson still couldn't kick Arizona's lifeline out of the tournament.
Five seconds. Dream denied.
"I thought the ref had called a timeout," Johnson says of the fateful sequence. "Then when I realized it wasn't a timeout ... that it was five seconds ... that's when the whole team was like, 'Whoa.' It didn't make sense. We knew we had a timeout. We were going to call a timeout if we needed it.
"I believe Cory called a timeout. The whole team just sagged. You just can't believe something like that."
With the game almost an hour over, Johnson looks like he still doesn't believe it.
March marches on
Later, Kansas coach Bill Self sits on the raised interview platform after his No. 1-seed Jayhawks methodically roll over Illinois 73-59 in a Tulsa nightcap that carries none of the angst of the first game. The entire Southwest Regional, which runs through San Antonio starting Friday, has opened up nicely for Self's team.
Only a 12th-seed (Richmond), an 11th seed (VCU) and a 10th seed (Florida State) are left in Kansas' region. This time, Self is one of the survivors of March.
"So much about basketball is not beating yourself," Self says, smiling.
He could be talking about Texas. About the pain that can't be washed away.
"For them to take that away from us like that is very unfortunate and unfair," Hamilton says, back in heartbreak central. "You have to wonder if the refs have an agenda. It's just so unfair ... I can't understand it."
It's March and a tournament that's sometimes as messed up as it is wonderful. The hard truth is that sometimes the speed in which the next game comes is all that saves the officials, all that starves off long-running controversy.
For Jimmer Mania is speeding toward New Orleans. The Seminoles have rolled Notre Dame, knocking one of the trendy Final Four picks to the curb with a thud. Duke must stop Derrick Williams now. Ohio State and Kentucky are set to wag war in a blue-blood battle in Newark. Houston is closer than ever.
Teams pushed off the train, no matter how dubious you may think the shove is, are afterthoughts. Left alone with their regrets.
And Texas has more than a few.
The last thing Cory Joseph asked Barnes before he left the huddle to inbounds the ball with Texas up 69-67 was, "Coach, do we have a timeout?" Barnes told him yes. Joseph swears he called it.
The final boxscore — the one that will never change — says otherwise.
Five seconds. You're done.
"It was just ripped away from us," Joseph says.
When the Texas locker room closes to the media, Joseph is still sitting there in that folding chair. He hasn't moved two feet. But March is already long gone.