Mike Harrington's vivid recollection of the Kentucky-St. Bonaventure game in 2000 put me in a nostagic mood. I have fond memories of that game -- which took place exactly 12 years ago to the day. I also remember Bona grad Adrian Wojnarowski leaving the press table to go up into the stands. He was too nervous. I was pretty nervous, too. The only game I recall being more tense was the famous Duke-Kentucky game in 1992 -- wow, 20 years ago!
I remember wishing Tim Winn had been a more pure outside shooter. He shot poorly that day. If he had been on, Bona would have won easily. I also thought the Bonnies could have beaten Syracuse in the second game. The Orangemen were hardly unbeatable and didn't play very well in their win over Kentucky in the second round.
Also, I have to point out that was the year when Buffalo hosted its first NCAA Tournament. I drove back and forth between Cleveland and Buffalo. It was the only time I ever covered four NCAA games on four consecutive days. That was the year Pepperdine beat Indiana in the last game of the night, in what was Bobby Knight's final game. The Pepperdine coach? One Jan van breda Kolff, who used that game as a springboard to the Bona job -- a fateful move, as it turned out.
That Sunday, a kid named Ty Shine had the game of his life as Seton Hall upset Temple in overtime in the second round at HSBC Arena. Wojnarowski, who was a columnist in New Jersey at the time, pulled me over after the game and said, "The kid has family in Buffalo." Sure enough, Shine's family were gathered around him the hallway, basking in the moment. As it turned out, his cousins lived around the corner from me in North Buffalo.
Funny how sports connects people, and ties us to the past. Maybe a dozen years from now, we'll look back on today's Bona-Florida State game with similar fondness. Here's the column I wrote on Tim Winn after that game in Cleveland in 2000:
By Jerry Sullivan
The thing I'll remember most, even more than the amazing scene at the free-throw line at the end of the first overtime, is Tim Winn's smile. It was there all day, no matter how nerve-wracking or dire the circumstance, lighting up the arena and beaming itself into the living rooms of basketball lovers all over America.
It was a smile that said, "This is why you love this sport, people. This is what all the NCAA Tournament hype and hoopla are all about."
It was a smile that reminded you the senior point guard from Niagara Falls had waited his entire life to be part of a moment like this, and he was going to make sure to enjoy it while he had his chance.
Sure, it would have been nice if St. Bonaventure had pulled it out. The Bonnies had a three-point lead over Kentucky with 10 seconds to play in regulation. Maybe things would have worked out differently if they'd fouled at that point, denying Tayshaun Prince a chance to come off two screens and hit a three-pointer to force overtime.
But years from now, I'd like to think we'll look back on Bona's 85- 80, double-overtime loss as a rare, fine day in area basketball. We'll remember it not with regret, but with pride and fondness, knowing that the Bonnies gave the tournament one of those moments that leave hoops fans shaking their heads at the tournament's endless capacity to surprise and astonish.
"There were a lot of doubters out there," Winn said, "a lot of people who didn't think we belonged here in the first place."
Winn sensed in pregame warm-ups that the Wildcats weren't taking the Bonnies that seriously. While the Bona players were stretching, some of the Kentucky players came down and took a few jump shots in their end.
"It made it seem like they weren't really focusing on the game," Winn said. "If we had been Syracuse, I doubt they would have done it. I guess that comes with the territory. 'Little St. Bonaventure coming to the big tournament? You can't be serious.' But you know, at the end of the game they were thinking differently."
The Wildcats found out soon enough what they were in for. The Bonnies hit some early three-pointers. With Winn dogging Saul Smith, they made it tough for Kentucky to run its offense. Bona took a 23- 13 lead, and the 500 or so fans who made the trip west had their half of the Cleveland Convocation Center sounding like the Reilly Center.
Kentucky's superior talent was bound to tell sooner or later, though. Bona never generated an inside game. It didn't help that Peter Van Paassen picked up two early fouls, or that Caswell Cyrus was settling for fallaway jump shots. The 'Cats closed the first half with a 23-5 run, then stretched the lead to 42-30 in the first two minutes of the second half.
Then Jim Baron called a timeout and ripped into his team. "Do we want to see it end like that?" Baron screamed. "Fellas, this isn't how we got here, so why do we want to go out like that?"
Baron turned in his finest coaching job this season. He defined his players' roles, and they achieved great things by doing simple things well. When they strayed, he pulled them in line. When he challenged them against Kentucky, they responded. J.R. Bremer, a Cleveland native, played fearlessly, making some huge shots. Winn kept forcing turnovers. Patricio Prato and David Messiah Capers made big shots and Cyrus grabbed every available rebound.
They went up by five, fell behind by one, and took a 61-60 lead on a Bremer drive with two minutes left. Winn scored after a turnover to make it 63-60 with 1:21 left, and was fouled. He missed the free throw, giving Kentucky a chance to tie on Prince's three. Winn's driving layup over two players missed just before the buzzer.
Winn knew Bona could have won the game if he'd made more shots. And yet, there he was at the start of overtime, smiling, having the time of his life.
"Despite the loss, I had a lot of fun," Winn said. "That's what it's all about. If you can't have fun in a game like this, why even do it?"
When Messiah Capers was fouled shooting a three with less than one second to play and the Bonnies down three in overtime, Winn was almost giddy. As a kid, he had dreamed of being on the line in a big NCAA tourney game. No time left. Game on the line. Anyone who ever dribbled a basketball has imagined himself or herself in that situation.
But three free throws? Three points down? Winn told Messiah Capers he was his brother and he'd still love him whatever happened. Messiah Capers made all three. When the clock ticked to zero, Winn turned to the Bona cheering section. He smiled and waved his arms in the air, urging them to rock the Reilly, uh, Convocation Center.
"It seemed like 6,000 at the RC," Bremer said. "Whether we were up 10 or down 13, they were still cheering."
"Last year we had a losing record and they still cheered for us," Winn said. "It's the unconditional love they have for us. It's like their job."
Kentucky had too much in the second OT. Winn, an ordinary shooter who became a clutch scorer in college, couldn't make a hoop. He had one last chance with the Bonnies down, 83-80. His three-pointer from straight away rimmed out. With 1.1 seconds left, Prince made the first of two free throws, sealing the win. Baron had the presence of mind to sub in five players. He gave his scrubs a chance to play in the NCAAs -- and he let his seniors walk off the floor one final time.
Everyone in the arena -- Bona fans, Syracuse fans, Kentucky fans -- gave them a standing ovation. Seconds later, after the traditional handshakes, Winn walked back to the bench to grab his brown NCAA T- shirt. He was the last player to leave the floor. He lingered, as if he couldn't bear to see his career end.
"At St. Bonaventure, I thought I could make a difference," he said. "It took me four years to get to the point where I made a difference, but it happened. Looking back, everything was worth it. I have no regrets."
He came to Olean four years ago, the Bonnies' biggest local recruit since Bob Lanier, determined to create some new history for the program. There were times when he wondered if it would ever happen. He got hurt as sophomore, suspended for punching a student as a junior. In his senior season, a team of underachievers finally found itself. The Bonnies gave the country a great start to the tournament, and they gave Buffalo basketball a moment to cherish forever. Winn said he was struggling to contain his emotions.
"Yeah, yeah," he said, his eyes watering. "I'm definitely feeling it. This is my last game. Later on today, I'll talk to the underclassmen and give them a 'what's it all about' speech. The same thing happened to me in high school, after my last game for LaSalle in the state championship. I was walking around like, 'I'm cool, no emotion.' But as soon as I said, 'Don't worry, guys, you can do it next year' -- boom.
You cried, he was asked?
"Yeah, that's part of the game," Winn said. "I put everything I had into this, into St. Bonaventure and this brown-and-white. Everything. My family's in it, everything. I'm going to be part of St. Bonaventure forever, but my career's over. I can't go on the court any more and do what I do. I love doing that, and it's over."