There was a lot of green among the crowd of 10,231 at FedExForum tonight, and I swear I saw a leprechaun blow a kiss at the last shot taken. With his team's season on the line, Wesley Witherspoon took a pass from Elliot Williams at the top of the key, drove through the lane and tossed up a leaning, off-the-glass rim-tickler that fell through the basket only after the buzzer had sounded to beat St. John's, 73-71, in the first round of the 2010 NIT. The ball hung on the right side of the rim just long enough to tease before gently deciding to tumble through the net. Leprechaun or otherwise, a blown kiss seemed to play a part. (The Tigers are now 8-0 in games played on St. Patrick's Day.)
"I have never experienced anything like that in my life," said an ebullient Will Coleman after the game. "The noise when the ball went through almost tore the roof off the Forum. I've never, ever heard anything that loud in my life. It was great; I'm glad I was on the winning team." Coleman lifted his game against the Big East visitors, scoring 10 points and adding 12 rebounds and three blocked shots. But like each of his teammates, it was Witherspoon's buzzer-beater that was the talk of the locker room.
"It was a lucky shot," admitted Witherspoon. "I won't say I tried to make it like that, but it went in by the grace of God. The play was for Elliot, to get to the basket and make an unbelievable shot. But I saw the defense collapse, and I called for the ball. I lost the ball for a second, but I got it back and I made the shot."
Witherspoon actually scored the last seven points of the game for the Tigers, draining a three-pointer from the left corner with 42 seconds left to give Memphis a 69-67 lead, then hitting a pair of free throws with 28 seconds left to extend the lead to 71-68. A three-pointer by the Red Storm's Anthony Mason Jr. (son of the former New York Knick enforcer and a graduate of Fairley High School) tied the game at 71, setting up Witherspoon's game-winner.
"What a great win for the players," said coach Josh Pastner. "They battled. We didn't get to the big dance, but we got to a great tournament, with a select field. Only sixteen percent of Division I basketball teams are getting a chance to play . . . in football it's like 50 percent. They played for 40 minutes; they toughed it out. [St. John's] took the lead twice in the second half, but we toughed it out."
Pastner admitted the final play was a bit broken. "That last shot . . . we were owed that, for all the times we lost [near the end]. I wanted to get something in to Elliot. We were going to run a high screen for Wesley if they doubled Elliot. They denied Elliot the ball, and Wesley came back as the secondary option, and we got him the ball. Sometimes the best offense is break-down offense."
Memphis shot at a scorching pace in the first half, hitting 10 of 13 three-point attempts (three each from Williams and Doneal Mack) to take a 44-35 halftime lead. But they hit only one of seven from long distance in the second half, that being Witherspoon's in the final minute. St. John's scored the first seven points of the second half and hit six of twelve treys over the final 20 minutes. Witherspoon's three-pointer was the 10th lead-change of the game. D.J. Kennedy led St. John's with 18 points, followed by Mason with 17.
The Tigers (24-9) will now face Ole Miss in the NIT's second round, with tip-off Friday in Oxford at 5:30. (The game will be televised by ESPN2.) The Tigers and Rebels have played 37 times (Memphis holding a 26-11 lead in the series), but haven't faced one another since 2006.