Diener, Wade joined Marquette legends with Final Four run
T.J. Ford | Larry Bird | Jim O'Brien | Roy Hibbert
Danny Granger | Troy Murphy | Maceo Baston
Only in the NCAA Tournament can Holy Cross prove a tougher opponent than Kentucky. But that's how it went for Travis Diener and Marquette on their run to the Final Four in 2003.
The Golden Eagles, seeded third in the Midwest Regional, were nearly victimized in the first round, trailing 14th-seeded Holy Cross late in the second half in Indianapolis' RCA Dome. But Diener hit a 3-pointer to put Marquette in front and another in the final minute after the Crusaders had cut the lead to two points. Diener scored 29 in that game, making 9-of-14 shots.
"They always say the first one's the toughest," Diener said. "My freshman year, we lost in the first round (71-69 to No. 12 seed Tulsa) and we didn't want to do that again.
"We played a Holy Cross team that liked to slow the game down and it went down to the last 30 seconds so it ended up being our toughest game till we got to the Final Four. That's just the way it works out sometimes. Once you get some momentum, some confidence can take you a long way."
Diener scored 26 in a second-round victory over Missouri. Dwyane Wade had shot 13-of-34 in the first two games but came alive in the third round, scoring 22 in a 77-74 victory over Pitt and then racking up a 29-point, 11-assist, 11-rebound triple-double as Marquette routed No. 1 seed Kentucky 83-69 in the regional final
Despite his big games in the first two rounds, Diener's fondest memory was the bus ride from Indianapolis to Minneapolis, where the regional semifinals and finals were played.
"You remember those bonding experiences with your teammates," he said. "Obviously, you remember all the games but more importantly you remember the smaller things – not the games but the little things as far as team camaraderie and the things that made us a good team."
It was Marquette's first Final Four trip since 1977, when Al McGuire coached the team to the national championship. Diener, Wade, Steve Novak and then-coach Tom Crean were established as Marquette legends.
"It's a school that has a lot of tradition and to make a run to the Final Four with the support we get there, I think people are very proud of us and we were very proud of what type of team we put together," Diener said. "Marquette basketball really wasn't on the map for a long time. We were happy to put it back on it."
The team's remarkable run ended harshly.
With Diener shooting 1-of-11, Marquette was routed 94-61 by Kirk Kinrich and Kansas. In the other semifinal, T.J. Ford's Texas Longhorns lost to Carmelo Anthony and Syracuse, 95-84. The Orange would go on to win the title.
"It was just one of those days," Diener said of the loss to Kansas. "A week before that we couldn't have played any better against Kentucky, we beat them by 20-plus, and the next week everything went right for them and went wrong for us.
"It was a game I really don't remember too well. I know we got blasted. That's all I really care to remember. I never will watch that game again the rest of my life."
He remains close with his former Marquette teammates and coaches, who grew through that experience.
"I talk to D-Wade once in awhile," Diener said. "He's a little tough to get a hold of. Me and Novak have a great relationship. We played three years together and I talk to him probably once a week and in the summertime I'm with him a lot. I still keep in touch with most of the guys I played with at Marquette.
"With how Coach Crean coaches, he makes you come together as a team and those relationships last a lifetime. We had a great team and more importantly we're friends off the court, as well."