PORTLAND, Ore. -- This was forward Will Sheehey’s moment, crunch-time pressure on, Sweet Sixteen opportunity beckoning like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a deflected shot bouncing to him and an open look at NCAA tourney glory.
And then …
This was forward Christian Watford’s moment, the Hoosiers reeling at the end of Saturday night’s roller-coaster South Regional first half, prospects fading with each VCU play.
And then …
This was Victor Oladipo’s moment, Ram pressure everywhere he looked, hesitation not an option, attacking the rim and to heck with any thought of a timeout.
And then …
A 63-61 cliffhanger victory boosted by a 7-0 game-closing run.
A Kentucky rematch, this time in the Sweet Sixteen in Atlanta.
After three years of basketball misery, do you believe it?
The Hoosiers do.
“It’s hard to describe,” guard Jordan Hulls said. “It’s great to be part of a team like this, that brings the IU program back where it used to be. That’s why we all came here.
“It’s special. It’s great. We’ll enjoy it. Then we’ll get back to Bloomington, get some rest and start preparing for Kentucky.”
It’s been 10 years since IU was last in the Sweet Sixteen. That was the squad of Jared Jeffries, Tom Coverdale and Dane Fife, the team that stunned top-seeded Duke in the Sweet Sixteen and reached the national title game before losing to Maryland.
Hulls said he was 12 years old then, a Bloomington middle school student dreaming of one day being a Hoosier.
“I was chilling in my house, watching all the games. That was great. It’s special getting IU back on the map like this.”
The map finds the Hoosiers at 27-8 with victories in 10 of their last 12 games. VCU’s fierce defensive pressure that rocked them for a season-high 22 turnovers couldn’t stop them. Neither could a nine-point second-half deficit.
Glory fell to Sheehey. He had overcome a first-half technical foul for throwing at elbow that had spurred a Rams run, withstood a relentless press that had broken lesser teams.
With the clock ticking under 15 seconds and the score tied at 61-61, Oladipo drove for a layup, and got his shot blocked right to Sheehey, who had an open look 10 feet from the basket. He took it, made it, celebrated it.
“I’m pretty comfortable shooting from that range,” he said. “It was open, so I took it.”
Hulls was glad he did.
“It almost looked like he had a smile on his face when he shot it,” Hulls said. “That’s Will. He can knock down those shots.”
VCU guard Darius Theus said he didn’t expect Sheehey would take the shot.
“But he’s a great shooter, so why not take it?” Theus said. “That was a big play for him.”
As for Oladipo, he had been stymied by VCU’s defense. He had five turnovers, been bumped, banged and harassed. No matter. With 47 seconds left and IU trailing 61-58, he drove for a layup, was fouled and made the free throw.
Twenty seconds later, he drove again and got his shot deflected to Sheehey.
You know the result.
“I was just trying to get it to the rim,” Oladipo said. “(Darius Theus) was on his heels, so I attacked him like we always do. He recovered very well. He blocked it, but fortunately it went to Will. Will made a great shot.”
Coach Tom Crean, not known for taking timeouts, nearly called one before Oladipo started his drive.
“The smartest thing I did the entire night was not call time out on (VCU’s) miss and let Victor run with it,” Crean said. “He was coming with the ball. He had done some great things. It didn’t go, but Will was right there and knocked it down.”
If it wasn’t for Watford, the Hoosiers might not have been in that position.
IU had fallen behind 42-33 with less than two minutes left. Then Watford ended the half with two three-pointers and a pair of free throws to make it a one-point halftime game.
“I knew we needed a bucket and I stepped up and made some shots. I got two free throws after that, so at that point I was going.”
Crean was going with him.
“We needed momentum,” Crean said. “We weren’t playing well. We weren’t attacking the press. We made a couple of mistakes. I was upset and Christian -- he brought momentum back to Indiana.”
VCU, last year’s Final Four surprise, was looking for a repeat. It didn’t happen, although the 29-7 record meant a school record for victories.
“This team had an unbelievable year,” Rams coach Shaka Smart said. “It really over-achieved in a lot of ways.
IU’s attack-the-press approach helped it hit 6 of its first 7 shots and burst to a 13-8 lead. VCU countered with a 10-0 run behind Bradford Burgess’s three-point shooting. He had 12 points in less than nine minutes to boost the Rams to a six-point lead.
IU rallied back for a two-point lead before the Rams went on an 11-0 run to take a 42-33 lead. But Watford scored eight straight points in the final 80 seconds to make it a one-point halftime deficit.
VCU ramped up the defensive pressure and nailed three three-pointers to surge to an eight-point lead. IU picked up its own defense (holding the Rams scoreless for six straight minutes), got within four, at 57-53, then wasted crucial possessions against VCU’s pressure.
The Hoosiers trailed 61-56 with 91 seconds left when Cody Zeller hit a pair of free throws, Oladipo completed a three-point play and Sheehey hit a jumper to give IU the lead with 12 seconds left.
VCU had one last chance, but Rob Brandenberg’s three-point attempt hit only iron.
IU had survived.