Friday, February 20, 2009

Friday Flashback: Mr. Buzzer-Beater

T.J. Parker hit four game winners in three years at Northwestern (photo: Daily Northwestern)

On the heels of John Shurna’s clutch three point basket to beat Ohio State, this edition of Friday Flashback will focus on NU player who hit more buzzer beaters than anyone—T.J. Parker. Though Parker’s exit from Evanston a year early to go pro (in France) didn’t thrill many NU fans, he did mange to bring NU fans across the country to their feet regularly by hitting four game winners in just three years.

Parker’s first game winner occurred against Bowling Green during his freshman season. Over Parker’s freshman and sophomore seasons the Wildcats played Bowling Green in a home and home series and won both times. The game at Welsh-Ryan was first and it was tied 60-60 with fifteen seconds left when Bowling Green’s Ron Lewis was called for a walk. With the score tied, I personally was advocating for the ‘Cats to work the clock down near zero before attempting a shot in order to at least preserve the tie. I think most of the people in the surprisingly full Welsh-Ryan Arena (4,719 for Bowling Green is a big crowd at NU) agreed with me. However, Parker took another approach. The Wildcats inbounded the ball right to Parker who shot up the court with his blazing speed and made an easy layup with seven second left. Moments later, Lewis missed an attempt to tie for the Falcons, and Welsh-Ryan erupted in cheers. I distinctly remember being very impressed with how much it seemed freshman Parker wanted the ball with the game on line.

Just over a year later, Parker got another chance to show his stuff in the clutch. This time, though, I wasn’t in Evanston to see it. When Northwestern hosted Arizona State on December 17, 2003, I was in Las Vegas. Thankfully, due to Mirage Hotel and Casino’s sports book I was able to see the Wildcats and Sun Devils do battle via a Fox Sports West broadcast. Watching the broadcast on a small TV in the back of the sports book with a friend of mine, I was initially pretty excited. The Wildcats stormed to a 34-27 halftime lead and extended that advantage to 13 early in the second half. It was one of those games for Vedran Vukusic where the Croatian native looked like he couldn’t miss. In the end, he connected on 5 three pointers and scored 26 total points, but it was Parker who made the big shot with the game on the line. With score tied 61-61 Arizona State had the ball. At that point, I had more or less conceded the Wildcats weren’t going to win; the best they could hope for was overtime. As the Sun Devils came out of their huddle, I pulled the little 10 inch TV closer to me, as if it would somehow make a difference in the outcome. When ASU inbounded the ball, Jitim Young made one of his typical hustle plays creating a tie-up and forcing a jump ball which went to Northwestern. At that point, both teams traded timeouts in battle of strategy which seemed similar to a game of chess grandmasters. Once the second timeout ended, NU ran what seemed a deceptively simple play. With ASU focused on Vedran, NU got the ball to Parker and again let him use his fantastic speed. With just over 4 seconds left, Parker couldn’t get the ball all the way to the hoop, but he got closer enough. Just inside the free throw line, Parker rose up and took a jumper which swished into the net for a 63-61 Wildcat win. My friend and I celebrated like we’d just see the NCAA championship and won thousands of dollars. In fact, he’d made just a $15 bet on NU, but it wasn’t the money that matted. It was Northwestern moving to 5-3 by beating a highly regarded team thanks to another set of T.J. Parker heroics.

Parker’s third game winner occurred in the first game of his junior (but final) season at Northwestern. In Alaska at the Top of the World Classic, Northwestern was in the midst of an uninspired game against Portland State. I was listening to the broadcast from my apartment in Evanston while prepping for my role in the WNUR broadcast of the Northwestern vs Illinois football game in the next day. As I listened to the game, I found myself rather unimpressed with the announcers hired by the Top of the World classic. It seemed though they hadn’t done any study of Northwestern at all. As it turned out, since NU didn’t send a broadcast team, Portland State’s broadcast team was supposed to do the game, but they had travel problems. Instead, the announcers from one of the other teams in the tournament were put on the broadcast, which probably explains why they seemed certain Davor Duvancic was NU’s top player. Despite their uncertainty, though, they knew who Parker was thanks to his brother Tony, for all three years he was at NU, announcers loved to point out how T.J. Parker’s brother played in the NBA. As it turned out, with the scored tied 53-53 Parker made the Top of the World Classic broadcast team look good. With 3.6 seconds left, Parker got his hands on the ball and as was the custom when NU needed a clutch shot, he didn’t give it up. Despite being thirty feet from the hoop, Parker swished the ball through the net for a Wildcat victory.

A couple months later, Northwestern found themselves in a similar situation away from home and with the game on the line. Again they turned to Parker. In Minneapolis, Minnesota on the road against a Minnesota Golden Gophers team who still had a shot at the NCAA tournament, T.J. Parker made his final game winner for NU. Much to my disappointment, the game wasn’t on TV at all. With the game not on TV, I didn’t really think twice about heading out to a meeting of one of the various groups as I was part of on campus. While at the meeting, a few folks followed the game on their cell phones, but with Minnesota steadily building a lead, I wasn’t very optimistic about NU’s chances. By the time I got back to my apartment, Minnesota lead NU 50-40 with about 4:00 minutes. I stopped in to say hello to one of my roommates and heard over his radio that Minnesota had been whistled for a technical foul. After the technical, Minnesota starting turning the ball over and I figured I better stick around and listen to the finish. At first, it seemed that while Minnesota’s tech had let NU back and the game, there still wasn’t a lot of hope for an NU comeback. As soon as NU cut the lead to four, Minnesota’s Dan Coleman drew a foul. Thankfully, he only made one free throw keeping NU within five. After his miss, Vedran Vukusic hit a three to bring NU within two. Then, Northwestern committed another foul. At that point I was about ready to throw the radio out the window, but the fact it wasn’t mine and the fact Minnesota again only made 1 of 2 shots keep the radio safe. With 44 seconds left, NU got the ball and went to Vince Scott at the top of the key for what Dave Eanet called a “cold-blooded three” it was by far the biggest shot Scott hit in his career at NU. So, once down 10, NU was now tied, but Minnesota had the ball. Similar to my actions a year before when NU played ASU, I leaned in closer to the radio as if I thought it would help. Maybe it did. Minnesota missed a shot and Northwestern got the ball back. Clearly knowing his junior guard’s flair for the dramatic, Bill Carmody drew up a play for T.J. Parker. Again, Parker came through in the clutch. With just under a second left, he fired a jumper which hit the bottom of the net. For a moment, though, neither my roommate, nor I was certain the shot went in. Excited at the prospect of NU pulling the upset, Dave Eanet’s color man Bob Hildebrand let out a shout of excitement which overwhelmed Eanet’s call. Given the sound of Hildebrand’s excitement, though, I was pretty sure Parker’s shot went in. A moment later, Eanet confirmed the made shot, and when Minnesota did nothing with the last 0.9 seconds of the game, T.J. Parker was Northwestern’s buzzer-beating hero for the final time.

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