The NBA Finals that everyone hoped to see will start next Thursday.
Stephen Curry's rise from small school superstar to the top of the pro game has been unbelievable. The baby-faced reincarnation of Pistol Pete Maravich has led Golden State back to the Finals for the first time in 40 years. He was a guy most NCAA schools passed on, seen as too small. He was a guy some pundits thought might carve out a niche for himself in the NBA as a spot up three point threat, but not much more. Curry has made an art of proving everyone wrong.
Watching Curry ball this season made me think back to his performance in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. In every Tournament there is at least one team with one player that no one else wants to face. Danny Manning and the Jayhawks in '88; Glen Rice and Michigan in '89; Kemba Walker and Connecticut in '11; and Shabazz Napier and Connecticut in '14. A team where you have to throw out their seed numbers, because their star is just fearlessly firing away with nothing to lose and dead-eye aim.
In 2008, that player and that team was Curry and Davidson.
I remember the first time I ever saw Curry play. I was sitting in the Commons at the University of Kansas Student Union. It was the first day of the 2007 NCAA Tournament and I was catching some early game action between classes. 13-seed Davidson was taking on 4-seed Maryland, and Curry, a freshman, couldn't miss in the first half as the Wildcats were down by just one point, 44-43, going into the break. The game featured 14 lead changes, but Davidson ran out of gas late in the second half. Curry finished with 30 points before fouling out and receiving a standing ovation for one hell of an effort.
When the brackets came out for the 2008 tournament Kansas wound up as the 1-seed in the Midwest region. Remembering Curry from the year before, I made note of the fact that Davidson ended up as the 10-seed in the same region. I was looking forward to seeing what the kid was going to do in his second NCAA Tournament. I picked the Wildcats to beat the 7 seed Gonzaga, but to go no further in my office pool. What I didn't know at the time was that Bill Self's Jayhawks, the best team in the 2008 Tourney field, and Curry, the 2008 Tournament's best player, were on an inevitable collision course.
Round of 64
Up in Lincoln, Nebraska, the 1-seed Kansas Jayhawks made quick work of the 16-seed Portland State Vikings. The 'Hawks jumped out to a 23 point lead, 49-26, in the first half before sleepwalking through the second for an 85-61 victory. As they had all season, and would through the rest of the Tournament, the Jayhawks scoring was widespread with four of their five starters posting double digit point totals, a sign of their being the most complete team in the field.
Meanwhile, out in Raleigh, North Carolina, the 7-seed Gonzaga Bulldogs and the 10-seed Davidson Wildcats gave us the best game of the opening round, an 82-76 barnburner in which Curry lit the Bulldogs up for 40 points. Unbelievably, 30 of those came in the second half alone.
Round of 32
Kansas punched its ticket to the Sweet 16 in Detroit, Michigan with another breeze through against Lon Kruger's 8-seed UNLV Runnin' Rebels 75-56. After another game of widely distributed Jayhawks' scoring, a reporter asked Coach Self if he thought the 'Hawks could go all the way without a clear number one scorer, a go-to guy. To which Self responded with that sly Oklahoman smile of his, "Our go-to guy is whoever has the ball."
Back in Raleigh, 2-seed Georgetown, a 2007 Final Four team, had grander goals for 2008, and after rolling through the 15-seed looked well on their way. The Hoyas met Davidson and Curry in the second game and took an 11 point lead into the half, that Georgetown defense suffocated Curry, holding him to just five first half points. Curry would finish the game with 30. He started feeling it as Davidson went on a 16-2 run before Curry made a three on which he was fouled and converted a four point play to cut Georgetown's lead to 50-48. The Hoyas had no answer, and Curry and the Wildcats extended the longest winning streak in the nation at the time to 24 straight wins on their way to Detroit.
In the early game in Detroit, Davidson faced the 3-seed Wisconsin Badgers. Bo Ryan's motion offense and solid defense was supposed to end the Wildcats' run. Instead, Curry joined Kansas' Clyde Lovellette, Purdue's Glenn Robinson, and Utah's Jerry Chambers as the only players in NCAA history to score 30+ points in their first four NCAA Tournament games. Ford Field was packed to see it too, with Lebron James even grabbing a seat near the Davidson bench to witness for himself the show Curry was putting on. After a 36-36 game at the half, Curry didn't disappoint, finishing with 33 points as the Wildcats ended up routing the Badgers 73-56.
In the late game (and I do mean late, as the game tipped at 10 p.m. Eastern Time) the Jayhawks faced the 12-seed Villanova Wildcats. Ford Field was still full, but not for long as Kansas looked absolutely unbeatable in putting on a demoralizing dunkfest that had the stadium near empty by the time the game was five minutes into the second half. Two things stand out in the video below. First, dear God I miss Gus Johnson calling Tournament games. And second, Darrell Arthur might be one of the most under-appreciated Jayhawks of all time. That kid's skills were absolutely sick.
Davidson and Kansas met on Sunday, March 30, 2008. Their game would decide the fourth and final team in the Final Four. All three of the other 1 seeds in the field (North Carolina, Memphis, and UCLA) made it. No Final Four before or since has featured every 1 seed. Kansas had that extra bit of historical stress staring it in the face in addition to going up against the one player on a surreal run to sports immortality.
Holding Curry under 30 points for the first time in his NCAA Tournament career, Kansas still had to weather his 25, but with little to no help from his supporting cast, Curry started to look exhausted late the second half. It was a good thing too, because Kansas played tight and sluggish throughout an ugly affair, before wrestling control of the contest with five minutes left in the game. That's when Curry sunk an NBA deep three to cut the game to two points at 59-57. After the Jayhawks couldn't score with the shot clock burning down, Davidson had one last shot to tie or take the lead with 16 seconds left.
It was clear that in the final huddle of the game, Bill Self told his team to let anybody but Curry take the final shot, because out of the break Brandon Rush, Mario Chalmers and even Sherron Collins were all over Curry. He couldn't find space to get a shot off. The rest of Davidson's players were just standing around watching, expecting Curry to go legend on the moment. There was one brief instance when Rush was picked hard enough that he went to the floor and Curry had a small amount of space between he and Chalmers with which to fire up a prayer. He instead opted to dribble across court before being triple-teamed and dishing it off to his teammate Jason Richardson, who was deep, but open for a shot. Richardson plunked it off the side of the backboard. Bill Self dropped to his hands and knees. It was over. The 'Hawks had survived to return to the Final Four, en route to their eventual National Title.
For Curry, he's probably relived that moment a thousand times in his head. It's easy to forget that he was just a sophomore that season. Seeing how fearless he's become as a player in the years since, had he the chance to play that 2008 Elite Eight game again, I guarantee he takes the shot. Make or miss, he takes that shot. As a Kansas alum, I've relived that moment a thousand times as well, and I'm glad he didn't take that shot, each and every time I do.
Thanks to the fine folks at NCAA on Demand, you can watch the whole game below.