Just when Cal-Irvine needed to Mamadou, instead the Anteaters decided to Mamadon’t.
All game long, the Seattle region’s most unusual man, 7-foot-6 Mamadou Ndiaye, hovered over the KeyArena proceedings like a pterodactyl, his 8-foot-3 wingspan casting a shadow over an athletically far superior Louisville team.
Only a sophomore, the young Senegalese has far to go athletically, but Ndiaye had 12 points and five rebounds and nearly screwed up the whole Friday afternoon — and thus, the season — for the fourth-seeded Cardinals. The high-pedigree program was on the verge of losing to a tourney first-timer, the distinctively indistinct ‘Eaters from Orange County.
Yet UCI, trailing 57-55 but with the ball, a timeout, 8.9 seconds left and a roaring crowd aching to experience the full madness of March, failed to even get a shot off. The ‘Eaters absorbed two deliberate fouls Louisville had to give — only one was called — as well as a crushing defeat, 57-55.
If the Eaters had just been able get the ball in the air, Ndiaye could have swooped, or tipped, or dunked or . . . something. But no. History went unmade. Thrills went unfelt. Rick Pitino went unscathed.
“I thought in many ways in this game, we were their equal,” said a distraught head coach, Russell Turner, barely hanging on to his composure. “Hard to say we were better than they were because of the way the game ended up, but we were a play away from winning that game.”
Had they made that play, the 13th-seeded Anteaters would have rocketed to national darling-hood, having knocked from the tourney the legendary Pitino, who knew he had dodged a bullet as if he were Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.”
“They were well-prepared, well-schooled to take away our strengths,” Pitino said. “Fortunately, two guys stepped up and we made big plays defensively.”
The two guys were 6-5 senior swingman Wayne Blackshear, who muscled in the final of his game-high 19 points with a baseline drive into the face of a bewildered Ndiaye to tie the game at 55 with 43 seconds left; and 6-1 freshman point guard Quentin Snider, who calmly potted two deciding free throws at nine seconds.
The final minute was a mess for UCI (21-13), Big West Conference champions for the first time. The penultimate possession was a hopeless, 28-foot jumper, and the final one was brought asunder when point guard Alex Young was deliberately hammered by Snider, following instructions from Pitino, because the Cardinals had a final foul to give without penalty of free throws. No call was made, and no timeout taken while the ball was in UCI possession.
“If it was a foul or not, that’s not for me to judge,” said Young, who was sent sprawling to the floor by the body blow. “But it hurts not to even get a shot up. That’s my job. I got to make sure that I can create something for myself, or especially for my teammates,to try to get a shot.”
Turner was obviously irked with the non-call with three seconds left.
“To have it come down to a foul call and a non-foul call, that’s a tough one,” he said. “But that’s basketball. That’s life. And when those things don’t go your way, you got to be able to accept that and move forward.”
Moving forward was Pitino, who no longer will have to deal with America’s tallest player, who was backed by a 7-2 reserve and another 6-10 forward.
He said during the week he called the coach of one of UCI’s league opponents for a scouting report on playing Ndiaye.
“He said pay no attention to what you see on film because when you see him in person, he protects the rim as well as anybody,” Pitino said. “So don’t watch film and say you can beat him laterally. That coach was 100 percent correct.”
So the Cardinals move on to Sunday, and UCI, having nearly climbed the mountain, returns to anthills.