A Play Called Pacer
Behind every triumph and heartbreak in the NCAA tournament, there’s a story. The Players’ Tribune presents Tales of Madness, a series of first-person accounts from iconic basketball players recalling their most memorable tournament experiences. In this installment, Bryce Drew remembers the unlikely shot that won Valparaiso its first tournament game.
Like most other college basketball fans, I particularly look forward to watching the first few rounds of the NCAA tournament. Part of the reason for this is that you get to take in so many different styles of basketball, but it’s also just flat out fun to root for the small-school teams that you’ve never seen play before. There’s nothing like watching as the little guys get to take their shots at the big programs on a neutral court in March.
Going into my senior year at Valparaiso, we felt really good about our team. The six juniors that had given Boston College a tight game in the first round of the tournament the year before were all back and we felt a certain confidence that we could play with any team in the country.
My situation was somewhat unique because my dad, Homer, was the head coach at Valparaiso and my brother Scott, who’s now the head coach at Baylor, was an assistant. It was very special to be able to work towards a goal like that with my family. I grew up as a coach’s son, so we were pretty good at separating our basketball life from our family life. But as the season went on and the pressure gradually built, that became a little more difficult.
The regular season didn’t go quite as we had planned. I suffered a lower leg injury and thought about redshirting before eventually suiting up. I didn’t really get into playing form until the middle of the season. We started off the year with a mediocre 9-8 record before rattling off 11 straight wins to get us into the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
We were a 13 seed and drew Ole Miss in the first round. Beyond the fact that they were a ranked SEC team, there were a few factors working against us heading into that game.
I hurt my hamstring during our conference tournament championship game and as a result didn’t get to practice much at all during the week leading up to the game. And then a couple of days before tipoff, we got struck by a blizzard that affected our practice schedule. Suffice to say, conditions weren’t ideal.
Regardless, we didn’t walk into the arena thinking the stage was too big for us. The goal of our entire season was to become the first team in Valpo history to win a game in the NCAA tournament. We were very focused.
There was no fiery pump-up speech before the start of the game. My dad gave a normal talk and we said a prayer before taking the court. A big part of basketball is flow and routine. There’s no reason to break a routine if you’re winning, so we tried to prepare like it was any other game.
I remember that it was an early game, one of the first of the tourney that year, so the tip time was around 11 am local time. We thought that might benefit us because being from a smaller conference, we usually played games at odd times. On the other hand, Ole Miss was probably more used later tipoffs because they were on TV more often. We thought we might have had a slight edge on that front.
The game started off pretty back-and-forth with Ole Miss holding the lead for most of the first half. At the start of the second half, we had a bit of a run, and you could feel the momentum shifting a little bit. And the longer we stayed in the game, the more you could sense that the crowd was starting to get behind us. Their energy really picked up in the last 10 minutes, which I think was a key aspect of the final result. When you watch NCAA tournament games, keep an eye on crowd’s behavior when there’s an upset brewing in the second half. It’s really something to watch how they’ll help push the underdog.
The last couple of minutes, we had a few opportunities to take the lead, but we kept missing three-pointers. Fortunately, we answered by getting stops on our end.
With 17 seconds left, Ole Miss missed a shot that would have given them a two-possession lead, and we rushed the ball down the court. I threw it to one of our bigs and he tossed it right back, which gave me a really open look. I put a shot up that would have given us the lead.
And at that point it felt like we kind of got the wind knocked out of us. I mean, it was a wide-open look.
But I remember that at the time I didn’t really accept that we lost the game. I’m a Christian and I’d read that God’s peace transcends all understanding. So I just thought about that and felt a peace come over me. I didn’t feel anxious or excited or anything, just focused.
We fouled Ansu Sesay, who was the SEC player of the year. He went to the line and missed the first one. We called a timeout and set up a certain play that we would run from half court. But then he missed the second free throw and the ball was bobbled around a bit before going out of bounds, which resulted in more time coming off of the clock. We knew we wouldn’t have time to run the original play we had in mind, so two of the seniors on the court yelled out a different play for this particular situation. It was called “Pacer.”
We had run this play once during the season with different people in different positions, and it didn’t work, so we ended up changing it around a little. I guess that was a good call.
What made this play unique is that to execute it, we utilized skill sets from multiple sports. Jaime Sykes, the guy who inbounded the ball, had spent the previous summer playing minor league baseball for the Diamondbacks organization and had an outstanding arm. Bill Jenkins, the guy who caught the pass, was one of the most sought after volleyball recruits in the nation, and he had a vertical that was out of this world. You can see his jumping ability on display during this play. Bill tapped the ball perfectly and hit me right in stride.
When I released the shot, I thought it was going to be a little bit short.
Thank God it wasn’t.
I remember yelling “Thank you, Jesus” as I was on the floor, but I don’t remember any other events following the shot. Everything was a blur until I went back and saw a replay on TV.
After the game, we went back to the hotel and everyone was kind of bouncing off the walls with excitement. One play executed by the entire team helped us accomplish a goal we’d been working towards for years. And when you get to share a great moment like that with your family, it’s really something special. There’s not a much better way to win a basketball game.
We spent the rest of that afternoon watching highlights, mostly because we thought it was so cool that we had been on TV. We never dreamed that almost two decades later, people would still be showing highlights of that play.
Bryce Drew is currently the head men’s basketball coach at Vanderbilt University. For more Tales of Madness, visit our Tales of Madness page.