LEXINGTON, Ky. In the bowels of Kentucky’s Rupp Arena in an auxiliary locker room Thursday sat members of the Davidson men’s basketball team.
No one was speaking. No one was crying. No one even touched the complimentary personal pan pizzas sitting near the door.
The No. 14-seeded Wildcats had just allowed a seven-point lead to evaporate with less than two minutes remaining in their NCAA tournament game against No. 3-seeded Marquette. The Golden Eagles won 59-58 on Vander Blue’s layup with one second left.
Marquette, one of the nation’s worst 3-point shooting teams at 30.1 percent, hit three contested 3-pointers in the final 63 seconds to stay in contention before Blue’s running layup over 6-foot-10 Jake Cohen sealed the win.
“They made some big, big shots,” said Cohen, a senior forward. “I thought we defended them pretty well in the last minute there. All you got to do is get one of those stops. But they made those 3s to keep them in it and they got that one turnover they needed.”
That turnover came with 6.7 seconds left when Davidson junior forward De’Mon Brooks tried to pass out of a backcourt double-team to guard Nik Cochran, the nation’s leading free-throw shooter at 94.1 percent.
Brooks had gone 5 for 11 from the free-throw line, and the Golden Eagles swarmed him in an attempt to put him back on the line. Instead, his off-balance, overhead pass to Cochran near midcourt was overthrown and went out of bounds.
“That’s a lot of weight on De’Mon’s shoulders,” said Davidson senior forward Clint Mann. “He pretty much took us here. It’s all those plays throughout the game that matter. Sure that’s a crucial point in the game, but man, they still had to make those shots and make that last play. And they did.”
Davidson led 54-48 with 1 minute, 3 seconds left when Jamil Wilson hit Marquette’s second 3-pointer of the game. Brooks made a layup on the other end, but Blue countered with another 3-pointer with 28 seconds left.
Cochran made both free throws to give Davidson a 58-54 lead, but Wilson made another 3-pointer nine seconds later to make it 58-57 before the ensuing turnover by Brooks.
“We came out the second half, had the momentum from the start,” Brooks said. “We left it all on the floor. Just one play. One play got us.”
Davidson led 25-23 at halftime thanks partly to a 12-2 run to start the game. But the Wildcats went nearly seven minutes without a point after making their first four 3-point attempts. During that drought, Marquette’s physical play and aggressiveness seemed to trouble the Wildcats, who would need six consecutive points by Brooks to close out the half.
Marquette, a team whose coach Buzz Williams said Wednesday “can’t shoot,” went 27.6 percent from the field in the first half.
And in the second half, Davidson had a 49-40 lead with 5:30 left. The school’s students, bused to the game for free by the college, sang along to “Sweet Caroline.”
Cohen, the Southern Conference Player of the Year, finished with a game-high 20 points on 8-of-18 shooting. Brooks and Cochran each scored 11, but the nation’s best free-throw shooting team went 63.6 percent from the stripe to tie the season low.
“You have to make 3s that are open and you have to make free throws,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop said, “and those are two things we didn’t do today, and yet we still had the game won.”
The game ended the nation’s longest winning streak at 17 games and ended the collegiate careers of four seniors.
Normally even-keel Cohen admitted he was low. J.P. Kuhlman sat silently in the corner. Cochran still had a glazed look on his face after the postgame news conference.
Mann, the fourth senior on the team, had a long embrace with junior Tom Droney. They choked back tears before patting each other on the back.