ASHEVILLE Davidson won its way into the NCAA tournament Monday night - 93-91 in double overtime over Western Carolina in a remarkable Southern Conference final - even though it lost a 12-point lead in the final two minutes of regulation.
Davidson won despite star forward De'Mon Brooks' 8-foot shot at the end of the first overtime going halfway in and then coming back out.
"I thought that was in," Brooks said. "I was ready to run down the court."
Davidson won, finally, when Western Carolina's long 3-pointer in the final seconds of the second overtime barely missed, allowing the Wildcats to escape with a victory in one of the five best college basketball games I have ever seen in person.
The Wildcats showed great resiliency and character. They refused to play the blame game when Western Carolina unleashed a flurry of late 3-pointers and Davidson kept turning the ball over late in regulation to fritter away that huge lead.
"What a story this is," Davidson coach Bob McKillop said afterward.
But more than anything else I would attribute their victory to balance. That's why the exhausted, happy Davidson players got to storm the floor for a barrage of hugs as the pep band boomed "Sweet Caroline" when the second overtime had finally ended.
For tightrope walkers, money managers and good basketball teams, balance is essential. Davidson had five players score between 10 to 19 points and five players grab six to nine rebounds Monday night.
This Davidson team has no Stephen Curry, whose narrow shoulders the last Wildcats' NCAA team rode within a breath of the Final Four in 2008. But what the 2012 Davidson squad does have are a lot of ways to hurt you, and that's what ultimately did in the Catamounts Monday.
The crowd of 6,049 - helped by the fact that two in-state schools made the final and have campuses less than two hours away from the game site - was rock-concert loud. Western Carolina seemed to have about 60 percent of the fans in its favor and for awhile it looked like the Catamounts - who have made the NCAA tournament only once in their history - would do it again.
"We believe! We believe!" the Western fans kept chanting in the frenzied final minutes.
But all five Davidson starters average in double figures. Eight players get substantial minutes (and none are seniors). When McKillop sees his team doesn't have its fastball on a particular night, he still has about four more pitches to throw.
JP Kuhlman, for instance. He's a steady starter who averages a respectable 10.8 points. But on Monday night, he scored 19 points and grabbed eight rebounds from his guard spot, time and again influencing the game.
Or Chris Czerapowicz. He hit huge 3-pointers in both overtimes. Or Clint Mann. The reserve big man had 10 points, including a huge dunk to break a 91-91 tie and end the scoring after Cohen fouled out with 1:24 left in the second overtime.
"He took it in there like a man," McKillop said of Mann on the play.
Davidson (25-7) now has a delicious period of waiting - it is still five days before the NCAA field is officially set. But Davidson knows it has qualified for the NCAA for the 11th time.
Western Carolina put up a wonderful fight. The Catamounts, winners of seven straight games coming in, were trying to become the first Southern Conference team in the current format to win four games in four days for the championship.
But Davidson was more well-balanced. And in a thoroughly amazing game, that's what finally tipped the scales.