Weekend Focus: Still Dancing - Smart, Grizzlies Forever Fond of NCAA Tournament Feats
By Stevie Johnson & Michael Wallace
Grind City Media
MEMPHIS – March was made to celebrate basketball memories.
And the curator of arguably the greatest moment in the history of the NCAA Tournament now resides in Memphis as an assistant coach for the Grizzlies. Thirty years ago in New Orleans, Baton Rouge native Keith Smart would forever etch his name in college basketball lore with a play that fans from all generations still simply refer to as “The Shot.”
That night in 1987 would provide Smart the greatest sports feat of his life. That tends to happen when someone drills the most clutch basket the NCAA Tournament has ever known in that championship game against Syracuse.
As a junior under legendary coach Bobby Knight, and on a stage that included future NBA All-Star Derrick Coleman, All-American Sherman Douglas and current UCLA coach Steve Alford, it was Smart who delivered the magical dagger.
“Thirty years ago, I had a nice afro,” the now bald Smart quips as he reflects on his hairstyle from the 80s. “Being from Baton Rouge, the way we performed all year, for me to take the shot and make the shot – it means everything. I’m getting goosebumps talking about it right now.”
You don’t realize what you’ve done.’ It would be 10, 15, 20 or now 30 years later when you look back and realize, ‘Man, we really won that thing.-- Bobby Knight
Here’s how it all played out. Down three with 38 seconds left, Smart first scored a bucket to cut the deficit to one point against the Orangemen. Coleman was fouled and went to the free-throw line, where he missed the front end of 1-and-1 that created the opening the Hoosiers needed. On a play designed for Alford, the ball instead went to Smart, who calmly knocked down a baseline 16-footer with five seconds remaining to ice the game for Indiana.
Grizzlies Assistant Coach Keith Smart talks about 'The Shot' that won the NCAA tournament.
Now every March, as the brackets take shape and 68 teams set out on their NCAA Tournament dreams, Smart and his family are constantly reminded of his shining moment. Basketball fans in the Mid-South won’t have to go far this year to experience their own moment, with FedExForum set to host the South Regional round next weekend.
Memphis last hosted the regional final rounds in 2014, when the Florida Gators held off a pesky 11-seed Dayton to advance to the Final Four. This year’s South bracket is oozing with star power and potential blockbuster matchups, with Justin Jackson and the North Carolina Tar Heels securing the number 1 seed for the region. But UNC may have gotten the toughest draw with former University of Memphis coach John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats snagging the 2-seed and likely NBA lottery pick Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins as the 3-seed.
Meanwhile, the Grizzlies will be thousands of miles away from their home arena while on a four-game trip as they push toward the NBA playoffs. Still, their minds will never venture too far from the NCAA Tournament. No matter how long ago they had their moments in the ‘Big Dance’ they vividly remember their regrets, proudest achievements, and the intensity of the single elimination environment. While no player on the active roster was quite able to match Smart’s championship feat, none are strangers to deep postseason runs.
In total, Grizzlies’ players combined for two National Championship game appearances, seven Final Fours, and nine Elite Eights. Point guards Mike Conley and Andrew Harrison came closest to securing a title as both fell in the national championship game. For Conley, facing the 2007 Florida Gators was a blessing. But the outcome still haunts him a decade later.
“The memory that sticks out the most is being able to play in the national championship as freshman in front of all the fans,” said Conley, who declared for the NBA Draft after the Tournament and was picked fourth overall by Memphis. “It was a dream come true and would’ve been even better if we won.”
The Gators outlasted Ohio State 84-75 on that night and overcame a combined 45 points from Conley and Greg Oden. Though he played well, Conley felt his early foul trouble was one of the reasons the game slipped away from the Buckeyes.
“If I had something to take back, it would be picking up my second foul,” Conley recalls. “After getting it, I had to get taken out of the game for a long spell, which I felt (Florida) took advantage of. Had I not gotten that foul, we would’ve had a better chance of winning it.”
While his biggest memory may be one of regret, Conley’s postseason run is also defined by his outstanding play that included a 21-point game against Xavier in which he scored 11 in overtime. Conley also had a 19-point game against the Memphis Tigers in the Elite Eight.
For Harrison, his two Final Four runs with Kentucky were vastly different. In 2014, the Wildcats underwhelmed in the regular season and ended up as the 8-seed. But in the tournament, the young Wildcats kicked their game up a notch, specifically Harrison’s twin brother Aaron.
“He hit like three or four big shots that helped us advance, some of the biggest shots in NCAA history,” Andrew Harrison said of a freshman-year run that also featured a combined 39-point outburst from the twins to knock off No. 1-seed Wichita State in the second round. “That, and the energy from each game were the biggest things I remember from that first year.”
It was the Kentucky-Wichita State game that Harrison insists he’ll never forget from his college career, even with the Wildcats stormed into the Final Four his sophomore season undefeated. That follow-up season ended with a 38-1 record and a loss to Wisconsin in the title game. The agony of not finishing the job has mostly subsided for Harrison, who mostly focuses on appreciating how far the team got and the fact he shared those moments with his brother.
“Back then, I wasn’t truly thinking about it like that, but now I definitely appreciate it more,” Harrison said. “We’ve played together all our lives and have had nothing given to us. We’re both on our own paths now and looking back on it, it was really fun.”
Whereas Conley and Harrison had short-lived stays in college, Sunshine State natives Vince Carter and Chandler Parsons were relative mainstays, respectively, at UNC and Florida. During his three year run as a Tar Heel Carter made two Final Fours, one under Dean Smith and one under Bill Guthridge, falling short in the national semi-finals each year.
The two losses still slightly bother Carter even 20 years later. But the deep postseason run under an iconic figure such as Smith has been essential in Carter’s longevity in the NBA.
“He was just legendary, man,” Carter recalls of the late Smith. “His approach, his presentation and what he meant to all of us. His knowledge of the game was unbelievable and his memory was impeccable. He was able to recall coaching in games from the 1960s and specific stretches that he would use to teach us. He was second to none and one of the most impactful coaches.”
Even without an NCAA title, Carter’s accomplishments are still revered in Chapel Hill.
“I represent UNC to the fullest, because they’ve … prepared me for where I am today on and off court, being an actual student athlete,” Carter continues. “In the basketball world, they expanded my knowledge of the game and how to take care of myself. Just the initiative to get things done and do them the right way, that will always be a part of me.”
Parsons’ tenure under Billy Donovan wasn’t quite as rosy, but would still help mold him for his professional career. The first two years of his college career ended in disappointment after missing the tournament both years. Falling short caused Chandler to do some soul searching.
“It was tough for me because while I was being recruited in high school, they had just won back-to-back titles, so we definitely had high expectations,” Parsons points out. “We had the number one class coming to Florida, and just getting to the NIT was a huge disappointment. We went through a lot of struggles as a young and arrogant team.”
It was at this point Parsons contemplated transferring. The team wasn’t winning and then head coach Billy Donovan rode Parsons hard to push him to his potential. But the Gators made the NCAA Tournament in Parsons’ junior year and ran into Jimmer Fredette and the BYU Cougars. Fredette scorched Florida for 37 points in a 99-92 win in double overtime.
The following season, Parsons was SEC player of the year and led Florida on an Elite Eight run that included exacting revenge on the Cougars.
“I just remember that first year getting Jimmer’d in the first round, which I didn’t enjoy,” Parsons recalls. “So it felt good to get a little payback.”
Tony Allen’s memories are of Oklahoma State’s NCAA Tournament games are fleeting, but what stands out to this day are the relationships that persist. OSU teammate John Lucas III made a game-winning shot to beat St. Joe’s and push the Cowboys into the 2004 Final Four.
“Playing against one of my good friends, Delonte West, who I got drafted with, and John Lucas hitting one of the biggest shots in the tournament so we can advance,” Allen reflects. “It was fun just being there and the stage we were on.”
No one forgets how they felt on that NCAA Tournament stage.
Not even those who go on to have second acts in the NBA.
Just ask any of the Grizzlies who have been there.
“I’m glad the shot went it,” Smart surmises on the 30th anniversary of his game-winning shot in the 1987 NCAA title game. “Otherwise, people would have been throwing tomatoes in the can at me. I remember Coach Knight saying, ‘You don’t realize what you’ve done.’ It would be 10, 15, 20 or now 30 years later when you look back and realize, ‘Man, we really won that thing.’”
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