LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The ball was tipped into the air, way up, way back, arching all the way past halfcourt, desperately far from the hoop where Virginia was trying to score. At that point you could almost feel every Purdue player, coach and fan waiting for the clock to run out.
“That,” said Boilermakers coach Matt Painter, “was the longest five seconds of my life.”
It was an endless and momentous 5.9 seconds, long enough to alter the fortunes of two fierce basketball programs. It was 5.9 seconds that meant the difference between victory and defeat in No. 1 seed Virginia’s epic, 80-75 overtime escape of No. 3 seed Purdue.
A missed free throw, a tipped rebound, a brilliant pass, a stunning shot. All those things happened in 5.9 seconds.
The play that delivered the Cavaliers’ first Final Four since 1984 began and ended with Mamadi Diakite. The slender forward was the one who deflected Ty Jerome’s missed free throw away from Purdue — one final, fatal rebound the Boilermakers could not corral, in a night full of them — sending the ball soaring about 50 feet downcourt.
That’s where Kihei Clark, Virginia’s waterbug freshman guard, ran it down and made the smartest play of the entire NCAA tournament. “The play of the century,” in the words of teammate Ty Jerome.
Instead of rushing upcourt and launching a long shot, Clark fired a pass up ahead to Diakite, who caught it and let loose a mid-range jump shot that swished at the buzzer and tied the game. The play was so sudden, and the outcome so overwhelming, that Diakite was at a complete loss to explain it afterward.
“I don’t know,” he said five times, though he also added this: “It was unbelievable.”
Almost literally unbelievable for the Boilermakers, who seemingly had secured the game. They led 69-67 when sharpshooter Ryan Cline was fouled with 16.9 seconds left. Cline made the first free throw but missed the second, leaving the door cracked open.
Painter made the decision to foul before Virginia could launch a potential tying 3-pointer, and Jerome was wrapped up with 5.9 left. This seemed like sound strategy except for one thing: Virginia had absolutely laid waste to the Boilermakers on the glass all game, which meant securing the rebound on an intentional miss would be a challenge.
Jerome made the first, then missed the second one short — but not on purpose. Painter swore it was not an intentional miss, and Jerome confirmed it. The short-armed shot then happened to be swatted away from the scrum in the paint, and Clark ran it down.
Smart as his pass was, Painter was fine with the ball ending up in the hands of Diakite with the game on the line. Especially with 7-foot-3 Purdue center Matt Haarms contesting the shot.
“Decided he’d have to make a tough one,” Haarms said, “and he did.”
Somehow, Virginia had enough time to pull it off.
Said Painter: “In your mind you’re like, ‘Goddamn, which way is the clock going?’ It seemed like 15 seconds.”
Diakite’s swished stunner was the biggest shot in decades for Virginia, but it was only the Cavaliers’ second-most fortuitous at that end of the court in the Yum Center in the past 13 months. The ‘Hoos have led a charmed life here.
On March 1, 2018, De’Andre Hunter banked in a 3-pointer at the buzzer to cap an unheard-of, four-point rally in the final second against host Louisville. That shot was a straight fluke. This one, by Diakite, also barely ahead of the buzzer and also at that basket, at least was a pure swish.
“We’ve had amazing games and comebacks here,” Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. “I was almost in shock a little bit.”
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