Scott Fowler

Fowler: Tyler Kalinoski to the rescue for Davidson basketball

Davidson’s Tyler Kalinoski releases his game-winning shot in Friday’s victory over La Salle in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in Brooklyn.
Davidson’s Tyler Kalinoski releases his game-winning shot in Friday’s victory over La Salle in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinals in Brooklyn. Mitchell Leff/Atlantic 10

Davidson should have lost it, could have lost it and still looked to have lost it when Tyler Kalinoski drove into traffic and heaved up a layup with his left hand with one second remaining Thursday.

Davidson trailed LaSalle by a point when Kalinoski’s layup barely cleared a potential shot-blocker and started dancing around the rim. LaSalle had led by 18 points in the first half and still by nine with 4:45 to go.

Kalinoski’s layup hit the back iron, then the backboard, and then the rim three more times. And then, as the backboard square lit up red, the ball fell into the basket. No. 1 seed Davidson had escaped with a 67-66 victory. Kalinoski lay on the floor in exultant disbelief while LaSalle’s players lowered their heads and headed home.

“There’s not much else like that,” Kalinoski said. “You see all your teammates running out to you, giving you a hug. It’s pretty surreal.”

Kalinoski, the Atlantic 10’s player of the year, had to make that shot to avoid Davidson suffering a major upset that could have hurt its NCAA tournament chances. The Wildcats will instead play Virginia Commonwealth in the A-10 semifinals Saturday at 1:30 p.m. The teams split a pair of games this season. LaSalle did its part to aid Davidson’s massive comeback by not scoring for the game’s final 4:45, as a 66-57 LaSalle lead kept getting sliced into by a Davidson team that just kept swinging.

LaSalle had two open three-pointers on its last possession but missed them both. With 16 seconds left on the clock, Davidson coach Bob McKillop kept a timeout he still had in his pocket and motioned Gibbs forward rather than calling a play.

“Trust,” McKillop said. “That’s what it came down to. We have three playmakers in the backcourt, and you’ve got to trust that.”

It was March basketball at its best, with all its frantic unpredictability. LaSalle, seeded No. 9, played beautifully for the game’s first 35 minutes and exploited Davidson down low, where the Wildcats are the weakest. Senior 6-11 LaSalle center Steve Zack, whom you have undoubtedly never heard of, kept bulling through Davidson’s undersized defense and had career highs of 24 points and 15 rebounds.

“I can’t even think about that right now,” a disconsolate Zack said later. “My career’s over on a buzzer-beater.”

Kalinoski looked to be in trouble late in the final possession. After fellow guards Jack Gibbs (22 points) and Brian Sullivan both took turns handling the ball but did not attack, Kalinoski found himself 25 feet from the basket with 4.7 seconds remaining. There would be no time for a tip-in or second shot.

Although known mostly for his three-point prowess, Kalinoski (who finished with 18 points) had only made 3-for-9 from three-point range Friday. His free-throw shooting had been bad, too – 1-for-4 on a day when Davidson was a horrid 5-for-13 from the line.

So he drove to the basket instead with two hard left-handed dribbles and then lofted the layup – “with his off hand,” as Zack bemoaned.

Did Kalinoski mean to hit the backboard? He didn’t actually know, which gives you an idea of the shot’s unlikelihood.

“I don’t know if I was going for glass or not,” Kalinoski said. “One thing we do in practice a lot, Coach always tells us to shoot it high. Because if you shoot it high, you give it a better chance to go in the basket.”

Kalinoski’s previous game-winner had been in middle school, on a short shot underneath the basket. (Since games are so rarely decided on last-second, win-or-lose baskets, many players go years without making one. Lance Stephenson got his first game-winner at any level earlier this season for the Charlotte Hornets).

“That was a great feeling and I still remember it,” Kalinoski said of his middle school game. “It was in our little city tournament and it was just a putback. ... But I don’t think it can compare to this one.”

Sometimes, teams win entire tournaments on the strength of a game like this. They feel like they are playing with house money after winning a game like that.

Other times, a game like this simply shows the fissures that become giant cracks 24 hours later in a loss.

Hard to say which way Davidson will go.

But somehow, the Wildcats won Friday. The best teams can do that even when they make 100 mistakes, because in the end they have someone like Kalinoski to push them through.

Fowler: sfowler@charlotteobserver.com; Twitter: @scott_fowler

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