ARLINGTON, Texas — In the end, it is only a shot. The ball leaves the fingertips. The ball nestles in the net. The buzzer sounds. One team wins. The other team loses.
And it's on to the next game.
That's what coaches, invested in making sure victory does not swell heads and defeat does not destroy confidence, would have you believe. That's what players, careful not to toy with the vagaries of athletic fate or stray from the coach's message, would have you believe.
They are lying, of course, preferring the protective armor of delusion over the reality of its frightening power.
A shot may be a shot, but The Shot moves mountains. The Shot changes seasons and alters destinies. The Shot makes a team and its fans believe that if it comes down to one play, one moment, the balance always will fall their way. The Shot makes the other team flinch, makes the other team's fans doubt — and no matter what they say — makes them believe the worst is coming.
In 2011, UConn had Kemba Walker, and nobody else did.
In 2014, UConn has Shabazz Napier, and nobody else does.
"Kemba brought us to the promised land," Napier said Friday as UConn prepared to take on No. 1 Florida in the Final Four at AT&T Stadium. "I'm trying to do the same thing."
This isn't another story about Shabazz trying to fill Kemba's shoes. This is about the almost mystical power the two have shared in a Connecticut uniform, a power that had Shabazz talking about how when he was young, he didn't dream of being Michael Jordan. He dreamed of being Superman. This is the power of The Shot.
Don't believe this? Ask Niels Giffey. He was a freshman on the bench during the Big East quarterfinals in 2011 when Walker left Pittsburgh's McGhee scattered on the floor. And he was a senior in the lane against Florida when DeAndre Daniels hit the reset button on miracles for Napier. 'Bazz didn't miss the second time.
"They are magic moments," Giffey said. "They make you understand how much these two guys want to win. They are so confident in themselves.
"All of us want the ball in Shabazz's hands when the final shot has to go up, same thing with Kemba our freshman year."
Donovan knows this. So do John Calipari and Bo Ryan. Oh, coaches and players can hide behind the progressions of the calendar and behind the giant playbook of X's and O's. The Shot has its own truths. The Shot is its own legend, and the legend is impossible to guard.
"Florida is a better team now," Daniels said Friday. "We are a better team. That game is behind us."
Some will argue these aren't even the same Florida Gators we saw on Dec. 2. Kasey Hill didn't play against the Huskies. Donovan didn't have the depth to press and use all the assets of one of the most suffocating defenses in America. Scottie Wilbekin didn't play the final three minutes after he rolled an ankle and wasn't around to guard Shabazz. The Gators are bigger and stronger and haven't lost in 30 games. They won't play in cramped, deafening Gampel Pavilion this time. They will play UConn in a place as big as the state of Connecticut and far more friendly.
Yes, Florida is better now and maybe Florida will wear down UConn. But believe this much: The last thing Florida wants is the game on the line and the ball in Shabazz's hands. He draws fouls. He finds open teammates. He makes big shots. He makes The Shot.
I have worn out YouTube re-watching Kemba's and Napier's buzzer-beaters. With 2.6 seconds left against Pitt, there was 6-1 Kemba exploding back off his right leg to get separation on the 6-10 McGhee. I spoke with McGhee months later and he talked about how coach Jamie Dixon ran straight defensive switches in the last two minutes. Jim Calhoun knew this, so Kemba knew.
When Jamal Coombs-McDaniel screened Brad Wanamaker and McGhee stepped out on Walker, there would be no double team. McGhee said he wanted Walker, said he moved his feet well for a big man. In truth, McGhee was no match. Kemba darted in, pulled away, darted in, trampolined away and took The Shot. UConn 76, Pitt 74.
The next thing we knew, Napier had Kemba wrapped from behind in a reverse bear hug. Giffey and others came charging off the bench. Roscoe Smith, his face bandaged after being cut open by an elbow, refused to let go of Walker. It was Kemba's sixth game-winning shot that season, and that day Calhoun would call him the most important player to his team in college basketball. The Shot made it permissible to believe that anything was possible. The Huskies ran off 11 in a row and didn't stop until they had the national championship trophy in their giddy hands.