This week is the 15-year anniversary of Bryce Drew's legendary game-winning shot in Oklahoma City, one of the most famous plays in NCAA Basketball Tournament history.
Drew's last-second 3-pointer lifted No. 13 seeded Valparaiso to a 70-69 first-round upset of Mississippi at the Myriad, now known as the Cox Convention Center.
“I get asked about that play quite a bit, especially in March,” said Bill Jenkins, the middle man who shoveled the pass to Drew. “They keep showing the play every year as one of the top buzzer-beaters of all time.”
What sets Drew's shot apart from other buzzer-beaters was Valpo's perfect execution of three elements on a play called Pacer — Jamie Sykes' three-quarter-court inbounds pass, Jenkins' in-air touch pass and Drew's on-the-run 22-footer.
It was a play the Crusaders ran many times in practice.
“We got tired of running it,” Jenkins said. “We'd say, ‘Coach, we're never going to use that play. Can we go hit the showers?'”
Valpo actually ran Pacer earlier that season against Western Illinois, but Drew never touched the ball. Center Antanas Vilcinskas fumbled the long inbounds pass. The following week, coach Homer Drew inserted Jenkins in the hook-and-lateral role.
“It almost never worked in practice, even when we ran it against no defense, five-on-none,” Sykes said. “I have small hands. A lot of times I'd throw a curveball. Or Bill's timing would be off jumping up catching it high.”
Jenkins said, “If we used it in a game we never expected it to work because we knew it would be almost impossible with a real defense out there.”
That's why Valpo's play is one of the most magical moments in NCAA history.
Sykes, a 5-foot-11 guard who was an outfielder in the Arizona Diamondbacks system, pump-faked to get 6-foot-4 Ole Miss guard Keith Carter in the air so he could throw an on-target, 60-foot inbounds pass to Jenkins.
Jenkins, closely guarded, leapt above two Rebel defenders, grabbed the ball with both hands, turned and shoveled the ball to Drew, who was running down the right sideline.
Drew stepped into the shot, drained it and was dogpiled by teammates.
What seldom is mentioned were pivotal factors that preceded Drew's game-winner.
With just under five seconds left, Drew missed an open, leaning 3-pointer. The Crusaders trailed 69-67. They were forced to foul with 4.1 seconds left.
“I was dejected,” Sykes said. “At that point you feel you've lost the game.”
Ansu Sesay, the SEC Player of the Year, had a chance to seal an Ole Miss win but missed two free throws.
If Sesay drained both foul shots the Rebels win and the game is merely another high seed avoiding a first-round upset. If Sesay made one free throw, Drew's 3-pointer only would have forced overtime.
Sesay, a 74 percent free throw shooter, missed both. After the first miss, Valpo called its final timeout.
After Sesay missed the second attempt, the ball bounced out of bounds with 2.5 seconds left.
“Bill actually knocked the ball out of bounds,” Sykes said. “They should have gotten the ball back but they gave it to us. That play should have never happened.”
Valpo's three players are now in their mid-30s. Drew is in his second season as Valpo's head coach, succeeding his father.
Sykes played five years in the Diamondbacks system, reaching Double-A. He lives in Monee, Ill., 30 miles south of Chicago. He works at a satellite office for an oil recycling company based in Wichita.
“It's a feel-good moment for me I take a lot of pride in but what I like most is my friends, people around me, find more joy and more pride in it than I do,” Sykes said. “Everybody wants to be an athlete. Most people don't get to experience that. I've been so blessed. I enjoy watching people around me describe it.”
Jenkins played two seasons professionally in Portugal before returning to Milwaukee, his hometown. He's a national sales manager and also owns duplex, a downtown club/restaurant.
“Every March I become famous for a few minutes,” Jenkins said. “I can't begin to explain to people the feeling of winning a game in the NCAA Tournament on a play like that, Every time they show it I still get the willies.”