ANAHEIM, Calif. - Almost everyone in a Wisconsin jersey stopped Nick Johnson in the handshake line and gave him a quick hug and pat on the back. One Badger in a suit patted him on the head, as if to say “sorry, son, but there won’t be Christmas this year.”
No, Nick wasn’t buying it. He didn’t look anyone in the eye or congratulate the Badgers, who sprinted off, looking for the caps and T-shirts that said “FINAL FOUR.”
One Shining Moment it was not.
There is no such thing as a curse in college basketball. No such thing as a jinx or a Journey To the Edge of Darkness.
Or is there?
Nick Johnson now knows how it is for his heart to be stomped flat at the intersection of Katella Avenue and Douglass Boulevard, the Honda Center, which to Arizona basketball is the Unhappiest Place on Earth.
This was Luke Walton on the same court, 2003, sobbing on his father’s shoulders, one possession from the Final Four.
It was Jamelle Horne on the same piece of hardwood, 2011, crying into a towel, one shot from the Final Four.
It was Mike Bibby under the same roof, 1998, choked up, dabbing tears from his eyes, the Final Four ripped from his grasp.
Sure, there was an earthquake at Disneyland on Friday night, but that was only a 5.3 on the Richter scale. Arizona’s 64-63 overtime loss to Wisconsin on Saturday was a 15.3.
Arizona is now 0 for 4 in Elite Eight games in Anaheim, the Grand Slam of Grief. If the NCAA selection committee ever assigns the Wildcats to this venue again, it will be a basketball felony.
“When you lose,” Arizona coach Sean Miller said, “it’s like a car crash. It’s just — you’re done.”
Arizona has lost its last four Elite Eight games by an average of 1.8 points. It might have won all of them with any luck. Horne missed the final shot in 2011 against UConn. Hassan Adams bricked the last shot in 2005 against Illinois in Chicago. Jason Gardner’s game-tying attempt against Kansas, 2003, went pfffft.
On Saturday, Arizona discovered there is a new, more crushing way to let the Final Four evade its grasp. Johnson turned a corner with a step on Wisconsin’s Josh Gasser, and, at best, the Wildcats were going to get a whistle and a couple of foul shots, down 64-63.
If you are a Wisconsin fan, it had to feel like you had jackknifed in a big rig full of cheese. Nick Johnson was going to pop your Final Four balloon with two foul shots and 3.2 seconds on the clock, and Arizona was going to cut down the nets.
A whistle in the lips of referee Bryan Kersey would decide the game.
Kersey called Johnson for a quick elbow-push on Gasser before Gasser more visibly pushed back. Sean Miller might need therapy to get over the shock.
In the postgame interview session, Miller did what any good athletic director or Pac-12 commissioner hoped he would do. He swallowed his own whistle.
“I thought it was a really, really tough call,” he said. “I’m going to stop there. I’ve already been fined.”
There would not be a “HE TOUCHED THE BALL!” moment at the Honda Center. No $25,000 fine for calling out the refs. There would be an exit and a midnight flight to Tucson, season over, and who knows what is next?
It was not only an excruciating loss, but it was the full realization that Arizona is likely never to have Johnson or Aaron Gordon in uniform again. And it wouldn’t be a shock if Kaleb Tarczewski and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson follow.
“We’re dismal, we’re dreary,” said Gordon. “Basketball is life for me. Taking an ‘L’ like that is taking an “L” in life.”
It’s more accurate to say that Wisconsin won more than Arizona lost. The Badgers had the game’s most productive player, 7-foot Frank Kaminsky, who was a Red Storm Rising all night. No one could stop him. Not Zeus. Not Gordon. Nobody.
How come Kaminsky isn’t on ESPN highlights as often as those guys from Duke and Kentucky? He’s sensational. Wisconsin is apt to win the national title if Kaminsky plays as well as he did on Saturday.
Miller said he had already fast-forwarded to the silver-lining of a 33-5 season. Maybe he said that to help himself get over the hurt, because that’s about the only way to move on rather than let it eat you up for six months.
“I know that I’m the coach that has been to three Elite Eights, but I’m really proud of all three,” he said. “But we have to keep doing things the way we’ve been, and one day we’ll cross that line, I know it.”
In the long term, no one is going to send their sympathies to Miller or to Arizona fans. The Wildcats will be loaded in 2014-15 the way they were loaded in 2013-14. In 10 days, scribes and TV analysts will release their early Top 25 for next season. Arizona might even be No. 1.
But that won’t help Nick Johnson get a call with 3.2 seconds remaining on Saturday night.
“We lost to a team that is excellent,” said Miller. “It just hurts because everybody in here knows that it could have gone either way eight times over. So we’re on the losing end. So we’re going home.”
Waiting til next year gets longer every time.