OMAHA, Neb. -- This one hurt in a way a basketball game isn't supposed to hurt. Not even a loss that ends a season. Those never feel good, so if defeat was going to happen to St. Mary's against Purdue on Friday night, it wasn't going to feel good.
But did it have to feel like this?
St. Mary's players crying on the court, hugging each other, holding each other. Other players pulling their jerseys over their heads, Rob Jones from the pain of his final missed shot, Clint Steindl from the shame of his final turnover, Matthew Dellavedova from the shock of shooting so poorly in the biggest game of his career, this 72-69 loss to the 10th-seeded Boilermakers.
This isn't how anyone draws up their NCAA tournament experience, especially a team as unique as this team from Saint Mary's, with so many players from so many other countries. These guys came a long way -- and they didn't come for this.
To play like garbage for the first 35 minutes against Purdue, trailing the entire first half, then trailing most of the second half by about 10 points -- sometimes by as many as 13 points -- before playing so well in the next four minutes. After stumbling for so long, then stalking, then clawing and finally overcoming, St. Mary's took its first lead of the game with just 44 seconds left on a 3-pointer from Australian guard Jorden Page. It was 69-68, and this is why these guys came to college. To America. To play in a game like this, and to overcome. Frustrating, exhausting, but ultimately rewarding.
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St. Mary's didn't score again.
It was a sad sequence of buffoonery and failure, which is why this one took such a toll on the Gaels. It started with 31 seconds left, when Purdue's Terone Johnson melted under the heat of the moment and the heat of the St. Mary's defense, palming the ball but getting away with it -- and then picking up his dribble and taking an extra step, and not getting away with that.
That gave St. Mary's the ball with 31 seconds left and a one-point lead. Finishing time. Winning time.
Clint Steindl stood under the Purdue basket, needing only to throw the ball into one of a handful of open teammates to set up the parade of free throws for one of the best foul-shooting teams in the country. Overall St. Mary's shoots 72.7 percent, but that's misleading because the Gaels are better than that. Dellavedova, their star guard, one of five Australians (a sixth Gael is from Lithuania), shoots 85.3 percent from the line ... and he was the third-best option on the court. Page shoots 85.7 percent from the line, which means he was merely a long way behind Steindl himself at 93.8 percent.
All Steindl had to do was throw the ball inbounds, and it would begin. The inevitable. After making so much noise for 35-plus minutes, Purdue fans were quiet. They were sick.
And then Steindl was moving his feet. He can't do that, can he? Not on an inbounds pass after a Purdue turnover. That's traveling, isn't it?
Yes. It is.
Officials called the turnover on Steindl, and the Gaels were crushed. They still led -- their only lead of the game, remember -- but in hindsight this game was over. Purdue jet Lewis Jackson got to the rim again, got fouled again, and sank his final two free throws of the night for a 70-69 lead with 22.8 seconds left.
St. Mary's came down with a shot for the lead, but Page -- who had hit that go-ahead 3-pointer just 34 seconds earlier -- shot an air ball with 10 seconds left.
Purdue got two more free throws, these from Robbie Hummel.
St. Mary's had one final chance, needing a 3-pointer for the tie, but Rob Jones missed -- his eighth miss in 10 attempts from 3-point range Friday night. When it bounced off the rim, he pulled his jersey above his head. So did Dellavedova. And Steindl. That was their immediate reaction.
Fifteen minutes later, their emotions were more raw.
Dellavedova's eyes were red, his voice cracking. Jones came back from the interview room and hugged a member of the coaching staff, one of them sobbing so loudly I had to turn away. This was a car wreck, and not one I needed to see. But the worst sight was Steindl in the locker room, one of 10 or 12 players in the small room, and his thoughts were plain to see:
I let all of you down.
Steindl was sitting there with his head down, a towel around his neck, his hands alternately moving from his hair to his face. This was another car wreck I didn't want to see, but I had to know: Did one of the officials tell him ahead of time, as they are supposed to do, that he couldn't move on that inbounds play?
"They told me," Steindl said, and give him credit for honesty. "He said, 'On the spot.'"
I asked Steindl, "Did it not register?"
Steindl said, "It registered. I just ... moved anyway."
Ever done that before?
"No," Steindl said. "Not before today."
That was enough. I had to get out of there, but when I got to the door I turned around for one last look. Steindl had his hands in his hair.
And this time, he was pulling.