SPOKANE, Wash. - The final shot that counted was a year in the making. Isaiah Miles made a decision last spring that his senior year was going to be better, much better, than the three that preceded it.
"Isaiah took a lot of shots since last spring to see that last one go in," Saint Joseph's coach Phil Martelli said.
That last one stopped the game clock with 7 seconds remaining in an absolutely classic NCAA first round game between St. Joe's and Cincinnati. Nothing was certain even after regulation ended because Cincinnati's Octavius Ellis threw down a dunk right at the final buzzer, a shot that if ruled good would have sent the game careening into overtime.
But the replay clearly showed that Ellis, even though the ball was in the cylinder before the buzzer, still had it in his hands when the light went on and the buzzer went off.
It was quite appropriate that shortly after midnight in the East, St. Joe's found a way back after giving up a big late lead to win 78-76. It was, after all, March 19, St. Joseph's Day.
Miles's three-pointer from the left wing in front of the Hawks' bench after a brilliantly drawn-up play by Martelli and a perfect pass from DeAndre' Bembry was the game winner.
"We ran it just like coach drew it up," Miles said. "Been running the pick and pop my whole life."
Bembry had the option of taking it himself, but read the defense and made the correct decision.
"They both jumped to me and Isaiah Miles hit the biggest shot of his life," Bembry said.
This wasn't the script anybody really imagined. Given the Bearcats' tremendous defense, points really figured to be at premium. It did not play out that way and everybody who watched it had to love it. It was high quality hoops from start to finish where no lead was safe and no shot too difficult.
"I can't even process where it fits in terms of game and in terms of stage if you know what I mean," Martelli said.
After Northern Iowa's halfcourt shot beat Texas with a minute left in the Hawks' game, their game had all of the stage.
"I don't know what else was going on in the country, but at some point everybody was watching this game," Martelli said. "So for that stage, for the two teams to play under 10 turnovers (six for St. Joe's, nine for Cincinnati), for the ebb and the flow... They block a shot, they throw down to dunk it... I'm not clicheish, but if that isn't everything that this tournament's about, including the agony."
That would be Cincinnati which shot 50.9 percent, made 10 threes, got 26 points from Jacob Evans, blocked six shots, staged an epic comeback from 12-points down with 11 minutes left to take a 76-75 lead in the final seconds, only to lose.
St. Joe's, which has won 403 games and lost more than its share of heartbreakers under Martelli, had its first NCAA win since the great 2003-04 team and Jameer Nelson beat Wake Forest and Chris Paul in the Sweet 16.
The Hawks (28-7) will play No. 1 seed Oregon, a never-in-doubt 91-52 winner over Holy Cross, on Sunday for the right to play in Thursday's West Region semifinal in Anaheim. Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, given as much chance to succeed as St. Joe's back in November, will also be in town Sunday, speaking at the Spokane Convention Center that night.
St. Joe's got serious separation midway through the second half, getting contributions from every starter and stretching out the lead to 63-51 on a Miles tip in. Cincinnati really looked ready to go until they didn't. They stormed back rapidly, getting the lead with 5 minutes left on their ninth three of the game. St. Joe's would have to finish and they did.
The Hawks' biggest defensive concern was getting overwhelmed in the lane with their unconventional and quite small lineup. So they set a trap for the Bearcats early, inviting them to shoot jump shots and actually hoping they would make s few so they would keep shooting them. Their first fives makes were jumpers, three of them treys. This was good news in the short term, bad news long term. Cincinnati did not take a shot in the lane for 10 minutes.
While that was happening, the other concern, would they be able to run their offense against the Bearcats' top 10 defense, was being answered in the affirmative. St. Joe's great spacing had concerned Cincinnati coach Mick Cronin and the half court looked very open as the Hawks got where they wanted inside or outside. Bembry was taking high degree of difficulty shots and making them look routine
With Miles on the bench after getting his second foul with 8:33 left in the half, the Bearcats (22-11) started getting the ball in the lane and to the rim, scoring even more easily than the Hawks had been scoring. The eight-point lead disappeared about as quickly as it had appeared as the very large Coreontate DeBerry came off the bench, owned the area around the rim and did not miss a shot, from the field or free throw line, ending with 14 first-half points on his way to 18.
Bembry, who was having the best half of his fabulous career, went off again, blasting down the baseline for a flying jam, hitting his third trey of the half while getting fouled and completing the four-point play for 20 points in 20 minutes, shooting 7-for-9 overall, 3-for-3 from the arc and 3-for-3 from the foul line.
The Hawks led 41-40 in a cleanly-played first half (seven total turnovers, 13-for-14 free throw shooting), definitely their kind of pace and kind of score. Each team was scoring just better than 1.4 points per possession, incredible offensive efficiency for any game, much less an NCAA game.
St. Joe's shot 48.3 percent from the game. Bembry went from shot maker early to shot facilitator late, finishing with 23 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 3 steals and 2 blocks. Aaron Brown helped the Hawks get that second-half lead with 11 of his 13 points. James Demery came off the bench to get 10. Miles had 19 points, including the three biggest of his life.
"In my career, that's the first game-winning shot I ever had," Miles said.
Asked to remember some game winners he recalled seeing, Miles referenced Evan Turner's half court game winner for Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament.
"He gave that stare to the crowd," Miles said. "I couldn't do that. I had to get back on defense."
That was true enough, but this game was definitely about offense. It was just a question of which team could keep up the pace and continue to score for 40 minutes. Turned out both teams could, but the buzzer interrupted the show the officials signaled no good and the celebration began.
The St. Joe's motto has been "play another one" for a while now. So they will.