B ehind 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, Mike Conley remembers the game that almost ended Ohio State’s run to the national title game.
I thank Ron Lewis every day for making that three-pointer. You never know, without that shot, my road to the NBA might have looked much different.
More than a comeback victory resulted from that play in our second-round game against Xavier in 2007. A confidence and belief in myself that I hadn’t known existed also came to the surface that day.
Throughout the first-half and during some of the second-half, we just weren’t playing with enough hunger and motivation to get back in the game. The score was 59-50 with less than three minutes left and we were thinking, We’re going to run out of time here shortly. We have to get something going soon in order to put ourselves in a position to win.
Over the next two-and-a-half minutes, we got a few stops on the defensive end, a three-pointer from Jamar Butler and we made a few trips to the free throw line. Then, with nine seconds left and the score 61-59, Greg Oden fouled out, which stopped the clock. Justin Cage headed to the line to shoot two free throws, and it seemed to last an eternity. I looked at my teammates, coaches and bench thinking, This could be it. Is our 31-win season and No. 1 seed really about to result in a disappointing second-round exit?
Then that second free throw rattled out and Ivan Harris grabbed the rebound. I got the outlet pass and dribbled up the court — I honestly did not know where I was going to go with the ball. I just wanted to find the right shot.
I saw Ron Lewis trailing me on the left side, so I pitched it back to him and screened his man. He had a buffer to get a good look and he made the biggest shot of the season.
Once overtime began, my confidence was through the roof and the flow of the game came so easily. The stat sheet said I was 3-for-3 from the field with 11 points in the five minutes of overtime, but honestly, my sole focus was doing anything and everything possible to get Ohio State to the Sweet 16.
We ran away with the game in OT, outscoring Xavier 16-9 in the OT period. We survived.
That game really allowed me to understand my potential not only as an athlete, but also a leader and a teammate. It made me realize that I was capable of performing at a high level on the biggest stages. I always felt like I was a good player, but to go out there and see myself take over a pivotal game was an epiphany of sorts. Being a No. 4 overall pick, an NBA starter and a member of the All-NBA Defensive second team doesn’t happen without defining moments like that game against Xavier.
Just as important as the triumph of that victory is the pain of the championship game loss to Florida the following week. Not everyone makes it to the national championship. To get so close and for it to just be snatched away stung a lot.
Through the pain of that loss, it made me long to get back to that level of success again. From that point on I hit the gym harder and with a different focus. I knew I had the drive to get to the NBA and be part of a championship-caliber team one day, and I truly believe that day is here.
March Madness gave me both a lasting confidence and a lifelong bond with both my teammates and opponents. Every offseason when I’m back in Ohio, I get together with some of my former teammates and reminisce about our run in 2007. There’s usually a lot of, Man, we were that close to winning a championship! … The Xavier game was crazy! … The Tennessee game was nuts! … The Georgetown game was unreal!
When we’re together, we just take time to remind ourselves that we were a unique team. There are over 4,000 Division I NCAA basketball players, and very few get to have the experience we had — that fact is never lost on our group.
To the players still alive at this stage of this wild journey, I only have one bit of advice: Live in the moment. For me it was just one year, but even the guys that are there for four years will tell you this: Really enjoy it, because the madness goes by quickly. You’ll never get that experience again.
For more stories like this, visit our Tales of Madness page.