Even the great Steve Smith is bound by the statute of limitations: one game-winning shot per NCAA tournament.
Smith had his chances to rescue Michigan State from Utah in Sunday’s West Regional second round game. Instead, none of the shots would fall when it mattered most and the 10th-ranked Utes went on to win, 85-84, in double overtime.
“It was the best game I’ve probably been involved with in my life,” said Coach Rick Majerus, whose fourth-seeded Utah (30-3) team faces UNLV in the regional semifinal. “What a great game. I just can’t say anything more.”
The Utes haven’t gotten much respect, but have two tournament victories under their belts.
What the Utah-Michigan State matchup lacked in marquee value, it made up for it in dramatics and subplots. Consider:
--Utah star forward Josh Grant, who scored 29 points and collected 10 rebounds, dedicated the game to his sister-in-law, Deanne, who is battling cancer. Utah players wore her initials on their sneakers, which, Grant said, “was more inspiration than what Steve Smith was doing.”
--Utah center Walter Watts, the rotund one, was dreadful from the free throw line until it mattered most. Only eight of 16 for the game, Watts, who sported a bloody gash near his left eye, sank the crucial free throws that put the Utes ahead with 1:13 remaining in regulation. And in double overtime, Watts converted a free throw with 10 seconds left that extended the Utah lead from three points to an unbeatable four.
“I just had to relax,” he said.
--Smith, the finest Michigan State player since Magic Johnson wore green and white, was playing in what turned out to be his final game. After scoring just eight points in the first half, Smith finished with 28. His back was bowed from carrying the Spartans (19-11) much of the day.
It was Smith who beat Wisconsin Green Bay earlier in the tournament with a buzzer-beating shot. Not this time.
Smith tried a three-pointer with 59 seconds remaining in regulation and the Spartans trailing, 60-58, but missed. No problem. Smith converted two free throws to tie the game with 24 seconds left.
Utah’s last-second shot missed. Overtime.
Smith scored seven points in the first overtime, but it took a short jumper by Michigan State’s Jon Zulauf to save the day. With Utah ahead, 75-73, with six seconds remaining, center Mike Peplowski missed his second free throw on purpose. Zulauf grabbed the long rebound and made a short jumper to tie the game once more. Double overtime.
“It made you think, ‘What the heck’s going to happen?’ ” Grant said. “ ‘Are we going to go through five or six of these things?’ ”
Two would do. Actually, this is the period Smith probably would like to forget. For all his heroics--and there were many--he missed two costly shots that allowed Utah to turn a tie game into an 83-79 lead. Smith even had the ball stolen from him, but luckily, the Spartans recovered and turned the error into a dunk.
It didn’t matter. The Utes, who made 28 of 46 free throws (compared to 13 of 17 for Michigan State), made enough free throws to keep the Spartans at arm’s length. Fittingly enough, it was Smith who made the final shot of the game: a three-pointer--pretty, but meaningless.
“It’s a shame one team had to lose,” Michigan State Coach Jud Heathcote said. “It’s a bigger shame we had to lose.”
Meanwhile, Utah prepares for its trip to Seattle. Looming on the horizon is UNLV. Asked to speculate about the game’s outcome, Grant begged a reprieve.
“Hey, let us have a week off first,” he said.
Fair enough. Enjoy.