The clock hadn’t hit zero, but to Tyus Jones the game was over.
Jones had just hit a three-pointer with 1:23 to play to put his Duke team ahead of Wisconsin 66-58 at the 2015 national championship in Indianapolis.
Jones ran down the court, mouth agape, with the middle, ring and pinkie fingers on each hand forming the number three. A photographer for Sports Illustrated snapped a picture of Jones on his way down the floor and it became the cover shot after Duke’s 68-63 victory.
“It changed my life big-time,” Jones said of that moment. “I’m still to this day signing Sports Illustrated covers.”
Jones is one of multiple Timberwolves who have reached the Final Four. His trip ended in a dreamlike euphoria, with a national championship. Others, such as Derrick Rose, Luol Deng and Karl-Anthony Towns came up short. Gorgui Dieng made two trips, one ending in a title. In describing their experiences at the Final Four — and going through the buildup, the media, the hype for nearly a week — one word kept coming up: crazy.
“Those are the moments you live for and dream of,” Jones said.
For Jones, the weekend was about managing the emotion of the spectacle that is the Final Four, and that was hard to do.
“It’s just a lot of stuff to do that’s outside of the game, so by the time you’re ready to play, you just want the game to get started,” Jones said. “It’s crazy just because you’re going into the semifinals games and all your energy and focus is on that one. You’re not looking ahead, so it’s a crazy turnaround to win that game and now we got another one in two days and you got to do the whole thing over.”
As if the emotion of winning the semifinals Saturday (Duke defeated No. 7 seed Michigan State 81-61) wasn’t enough, you have to turn around and play the new biggest game of your life less than 48 hours later. There’s almost no time to think. You have to rest, recover, practice and watch film all day Sunday. But on Monday, Jones said, there’s a lot of waiting around — and thinking.
“I remember the day of that game felt like the longest day of my life,” Jones said. “You’re just thinking about this game so it is a little draining.”
That was reflected in the play of the game, Jones said.
“Everyone gets tired in that first stretch,” Jones said. “But once guys get into a rhythm, get that second wind, then it’s back to just basketball and playing. Later in that second half is when you feel the intensity pick up, everything is on the line.”
Duke overcame a nine-point Wisconsin lead in the second half, thanks in part to Jones’ game-high 23 points, which included that life-changing three-pointer.
“You dream of hitting the dagger shot in the championship game, playing for Duke,” Jones said. “It was like storybook type of thing. Your whole family is there. I just remember letting out all the emotion, and it was something I can’t really put into words.”
Towns and his Kentucky team were also at that same Final Four, but their stay didn’t last as long. Towns’ Kentucky squad entered Indianapolis 38-0 and left 38-1 after falling 71-64 to Wisconsin. He still isn’t over it.
“I’ve cursed out the NCAA enough already, so I don’t need to do it again,” Towns said recently.
His problem was the officiating and how he felt it was unfair toward Kentucky. But Towns said there was another issue plaguing the Wildcats — they came in overconfident, even though Notre Dame had given them a scare in a game that came down to the last possession during the Elite Eight.
“Extreme confidence, lot of swagger, borderline cockiness,” Towns said. “We were focused. We had been undefeated all year. Thirty-eight people had tried, 38 people had failed, so we went in there like that. I think we just got too cocky from everybody in our group. From the players, the coaching staff and everything. … The refs gave us a very tough whistle. Forgot how to play basketball, and we lost the game.”
Towns said the buildup to the Final Four didn’t bother him given that Kentucky was a national story line all season with its undefeated record.
“That was nothing,” Towns said. “We had hype like that all year. We were dealing with ESPN showing us every single day. … When it came to being at the Final Four, it felt like just being another day at Lexington. That was the least of our concerns.”
Can’t take it away
That wasn’t the case for Dieng, who made two trips to the Final Four in 2012 and 2013 with Louisville. Louisville lost to Anthony Davis’ Kentucky team in the semifinals in 2012, but defeated Michigan for the title a year later.
“I didn’t know how big it was in my [sophomore] year, but my [junior] year I definitely enjoyed it. You talk about somebody that comes from Africa, you don’t understand how big the NCAA is. … The championship game I was so tired. I remember that. I was so tired. The hype, the hotel is packed, people partying and dancing. It’s amazing.”
Dieng’s experience didn’t have quite the storybook ending that Jones’ did. The NCAA stripped Louisville of its title after an investigation that alleged former Louisville staff member Andre McGee arranged for exotic dancing and sexual acts for players and recruits. Dieng and four other Louisville players are suing the NCAA, saying they were held in “false light” as a result of the punishments because it implied they were participating in the activities.
Dieng said the NCAA can never take away what he felt the night Louisville beat the Wolverines 82-76 in Atlanta. It can’t take away his Final Four memories.
“I don’t like to talk about it, but I don’t think it’s right the fact that we were student athletes and I was eligible to play and to win a championship,” Dieng said. “So they don’t have to take it away from me if I don’t do anything to jeopardize it. I understand they can suspend whoever they want to suspend and do that stuff, but don’t suspend somebody that was eligible, that was a good student-athlete. …
“The fact that they took the championship, that was too much for me. They can take it away from the record, but we all know how good we were as a team.”