If you've seen it once, you've seen it dozens of times over the past 30 years of major college basketball.
When the calendar arrives at late February and early March, Rick Pitino gets his teams to play at their best. The struggles of December and January melt away and give rise to a fluid, coordinated team that plays with more energy and freedom, liberated by the prospect of gaining tournament riches under the watch of a coach who — horse lover that he is — knows how to ride thoroughbreds to the finish line.
On Saturday afternoon at the FedEx Forum, Louisville was mounting the patented Pitino Late Season Charge once again. The Cardinals produced a series of letter-perfect possessions and — thanks to an overwhelmingly strong performance from Montrezl Harrell — forged a 65-57 lead with 4:47 remaining in regulation. A seesaw affair shifted considerably, and it was little surprise that the defending national champions — a Final Four team in each of the past two seasons — were the ones who took charge.
Yet, in a month known for Madness and all its outrageous plot twists, the Pitino Late Season Charge was abruptly stopped before it had a chance to begin. Memphis crafted one of the more meaningful moments of the Josh Pastner era and — at the very least — set the stage for a different experience in the cauldron of tournament pressure.
Few coaches have faced more scrutiny over the past few years than Pastner, who — being a young coach — can't quite be expected to know the ins and outs of his profession the same way a Jim Boeheim or a Tom Izzo should. Nevertheless, the high-level consistency of John Calipari's tenure in Memphis made Pastner's body of work suffer by comparison. Just one NCAA tournament win entering this season has left Tiger fans, netural parties, and opponents united in thinking that the program isn't where it needs to be.
What happened in the final 4:47 on Saturday against Louisville offers no guarantees of a transformation in Memphis… but it does allow for a new set of possibilities, and for now, that means something to the Tigers. At the very least, it ought to.
Memphis allowed a single point in that closing stretch of 4:47. The Tigers took the ball out of Russ Smith's hands. They contained Harrell, who had been destroying them for much of the second half. Memphis was all too happy to let Louisville guard Chris Jones dribble the Cardinals and their final few possessions into oblivion. While the Cardinals imploded on offense, Memphis gained a few run-outs and foul shots to cobble together quick clusters of points. When Chris Crawford tossed in a "no-no-no-no GREAT SHOT" three to break a 65-all tie at the 1:43 mark of regulation, Memphis had turned the corner in this game.
The Tigers and Pastner hope that in the coming weeks, they'll be able to turn the corner as a program, which would enable them to look back on this moment as The Moment Everything Changed for a proud basketball school with a rich decades-long heritage.