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March 25, 2013

Watford’s block is his biggest play yet

Dayton, Ohio — Christian Watford’s game-winning 3-point shot to defeat No. 1-ranked Kentucky 73-72 on Dec. 10, 2011, at Assembly Hall is the stuff of legend for fans of Indiana basketball.

It put IU’s program back on the map. It was the moment when IU stopped wondering whether it could be good and became great.

It will live long in the memory of all Hoosiers fans. An IU fanatic is probably replaying it on Youtube as you read this. Indiana fans from Angola to Mount Vernon and all points in between have pictures of Watford’s shot in their man caves.

As big as that play was, Watford topped it Sunday in IU’s 58-52 third round NCAA Tournament victory over tough-as-nails Temple at University of Dayton Arena.

Watford topped it with one fell swoop.

Watford’s block on an Anthony Lee shot with 2:18 left saved the Hoosiers’ season … and the Hoosiers badly needed saving.

For much of the contest, the Hoosiers were out-toughed and outplayed by a Temple team that rose to the occasion and made IU shrink from the moment.

It wasn’t so much that IU brought a knife to a gunfight; it was that the Hoosiers brought a pillow to a fistfight. Temple made IU look soft.

Cody Zeller was scattershot. Jordan Hulls was hurt — though his grit in playing through pain in the second half was also a big key to the Hoosiers’ victory. Victor Oladipo had trouble getting good looks against Temple’s withering defense, wore himself out running down Temple gunner Khalif Wyatt, and got frustrated.

Temple controlled the first 38 minutes of the game and, it seemed, was well placed to take all 40.

Temple was up 52-50 when Lee was found wide-open in the lane as IU triple-teamed uber-dangerous Wyatt in the corner. Lee’s open path to the basket spelled doom for the Hoosiers. IU seemed destined to flush what could be a special 2013 season down the drain.

Watford flushed that notion instead.

Watford came from the weak side and got behind Lee as the Temple forward briefly lost momentum on his lunge toward an open hoop. Watford swatted his two-handed attempt with his right paw.

Few rejections have been so momentous.

“Cody and Victor blitzed on a high ball screen. I was on the weak side, and I was kind of pushed up too much, and Wyatt put enough air on the ball for me to get it. I got in at the end and challenged the shot and I blocked him,” Watford explained.

Temple never recovered. Lee rebounded the block, but Scootie Randall would subsequently miss the last of his 12 shots without a make.

Twenty-one seconds later, a pair of Zeller free throws tied the game. With 1:19 left, an Oladipo free throw put the Hoosiers in front.

Watford made his presence felt again when he defended Temple’s Rahlir Hollis-Jefferson and forced him to shoot an airball with 46 seconds left at the death of the shot clock.

Oladipo provided the dagger with 14 seconds when Zeller passed out of a double-team and found the junior wide open at the top of the key for a 3-pointer to put the Hoosiers up 56-52.

IU’s victory pulled from the jaws of defeat defined the survive-and-advance cliché. Watford’s block came when IU’s lump was deepest in its throat.

During the postgame press conference, I asked Watford whether his block was bigger — given the moment, given what was at stake and given that he’s a senior — than the shot he hit against Kentucky in 2011.

Before Watford opened his mouth, I had my answer. Teammates Zeller and Oladipo, sitting to Watford’s right, were already nodding their approval.

Watford merely confirmed their feelings.

“Definitely, I feel like that. My motivation is to play with these guys as long as possible and I’m willing to do whatever it takes in order to keep playing. I just want to play till we can’t play no more,” Watford said.

IU coach Tom Crean interjected with his own thoughts.

“Think you can sell as many pictures of that?” Crean asked from the dais, referring to the iconic status of Watford’s UK bomb.

I don’t know how many Watford rejection posters IU might sell. I do know that Watford’s block ensured that the Hoosiers still have a chance to hang another NCAA championship banner in Assembly Hall.

That gives Watford’s block a bigger place in IU immortality than his kill shot against Kentucky did.

Todd Golden can be reached at 812-231-4272 or todd.golden@tribstar.com.

Please follow him on Twitter @TribStarTodd.



 

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