The Agony of Defeat in Memphis
MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Darius Washington had to be the sickest man in America on Saturday.
The scene at the FedEx Forum said it all. Washington was just laying on the floor motionless, his head buried in his jersey, and no one able to get him up. The same player who helped carry his team to the brink of the Conference USA championship and the NCAA Tournament had to be carried off the floor. Like any athlete who has just lost an important game, the fact that he scored eight points in the final five minutes and 18 in the second half (23 points and six assists in the game) and was the reason they even got that far, mattered not.
It’s easy to look at some of his previous plays and not feel an ounce of sympathy, but this isn’t the time to take the hard stand. Earlier, Washington was nodding his head when he scored key baskets, even though his team was still coming from behind. He had similar reactions upon being fouled with no time left and his team down two, nodding his head and pounding his chest multiple times as if he had just won the game – even though that wasn’t the case. On the first free throw, he followed through with his right hand still in the air as it went through.
But the next two free throws are just part of why we can’t take this hard stand, along with the fact that he’s still a young kid and just playing with emotion. When he missed the second one, giving Louisville a 75-74 win and the Conference USA title, he collapsed to the floor like a ton of bricks. That was all that was needed.
“Obviously Darius made every play down the stretch to keep us in the game, and the kid is just distraught over the three free throws,” head coach John Calipari said after the game. Washington did not speak with reporters, for obvious reasons.
The NIT beckons for the Tigers, and the season thus far has certainly been a trial-by-fire for the Winter Park, Florida native. He didn’t exactly set the college basketball world on fire at first, although he certainly showed promise. In his first college game, he had eight assists and two turnovers in a win over Savannah State. Perhaps his first bad game was in the Tip-Off Classic, where Maryland blew out the Tigers. Washington was just 4-12 from the field, with one assist and six turnovers, a game that Calipari said was “a little bit of a wakeup call for Darius.”
Washington didn’t instantly mature, as he had similar games against Pittsburgh (2-10 shooting, one assist and four turnovers) and Ole Miss (two assists, eight turnovers despite scoring 20 points, a career-high at the time). He had his worst shooting game against Providence, going just 2-for-13 from the field. But that game, a loss, may have been the point where he really turned the corner. It was his last game scoring in single digits, as he averaged over 17 points per game the rest of the way, and he had a 1.1 assist/turnover ratio.
Calipari has said that he gets on Washington as hard as anyone in practice. He’s as talented as anyone they have, and as their floor leader, much is expected of him. As the season went along, he started to fulfill what was expected of him. The Tigers went as he went this season to a good degree, which often happens with a team and its floor leader. And on Saturday, it’s only fitting that as he missed two of three free throws at the end of the game, the Tigers ended up losing – though Washington did all he could to put them in the position to win. They didn’t lose because of him by a long shot; allowing Louisville to make 15-of-23 three-pointers contributed to the loss a lot more than anything the freshman point guard did.
Washington has clearly grown during the season, and with all his talent, he has some great times ahead. If the past is any indicator, he will grow from Saturday’s experience as well, starting with their first NIT game on Wednesday night. He will remember the feeling, and it will be one more thing that motivates him to keep growing as a basketball player.