They also have the power to inspire and teach lessons. But when they turn a chiseled skyscraper of a college basketball player into an inconsolable, doubled-over sobbing heap the way they did Jordan Mickey Thursday night, it can be challenging to see the good.
Some 15 minutes before finding Mickey in that unenviable position with towels over his head inside the LSU locker room, I, and the rest of America, witnessed him choke spectacularly on a large stage, a stage he’s fought hard – and through multiple injuries – to reach these last two years.
What happened once he got there?
For the most part he did what he usually does. Mickey, the nation’s leading shot-blocker and a consensus First-Team All-SEC performer, posted 12 points, 13 rebounds and six blocks against NC State in the first 38 minutes and 35 seconds of the Round-of-64 matchup.
The problem for Mickey is the final 85 seconds are all anybody is going to remember.
“Just knowing that I had the game right there in my hands and I wasn’t able to put it away,” Mickey said, fighting off tears all the while, “it’s a bitter pill to swallow.”
With LSU’s 16-point second-half lead over the Wolfpack whittled down to three, Mickey stepped to the line on two separate occasions, missing all four free throws, and then had a close-in bank shot rattle out with 24 seconds remaining in regulation.
The Pack capitalized as beefy center BeeJay Anya made two buckets in the final 47 seconds, scoring his only four points of the game and sending the Tigers packing with his last effort, a lefty hook in traffic, passing through the net with 0.1 seconds to go.
“Stuff like that happens throughout the game. It’s why the game is hard,” junior guard Keith Hornsby offered on Mickey. “People look at that shot and think it’s easy, but it’s not in that type of pressure situation. Free throws are never easy down the stretch in pressure situations. It’s all about the experience, and hopefully we realize now that free throws are something we’re just going to have to really focus on.”
Mickey couldn’t put a finger on what went wrong from the not-so-charitable stripe in CONSOL Energy Center. “I’m not sure. I know the type of free-throw shooter I am. Probably a bad bounce or two, but I just couldn’t knock them down at the end.”
A 69.5% shooter from the line as a freshman, Mickey came into the Steel City battle with NC State making 65.9% of his attempts this season. After going 4-of-9 on Thursday his averaged dropped 1.3 percentage points.
“It was a team thing,” Martin explained. “We could’ve made plays at the beginning of the game, at the end. We could’ve got rebounds. It’s not a one-person thing. It’s a team that went out there on the floor, and it’s a team thing that we lost.”
So, extending Martin’s logic, the team had a big hand in coughing up what seemed like an insurmountable lead.
“It’s not like we were missing anything mentally. We were all there, and we gave it everything we got,” Hornsby assured. “Certain things didn’t go our way. They made plays that really mattered when it mattered. That’s just how the game goes. They’re a good team, and we played as hard as we could against them.”
Once the ball got rolling and picked up steam, it was apparently impossible to stop for the Tigers . . . on both ends of the floor.
“There was so much going on,” remembered Martin. “We were trying to keep a high focus on their shooters to make sure they didn’t hit shots, and they winded up coming in and getting offensive rebounds. That was the main thing. We were probably too focused on their shooters.”
Six offensive rebounds for NC State in the final six minutes, 29 seconds was the result. Combining an offensive drought with rebounding difficulties with a lack of clutch play spelled self-inflicted doom for Johnny Jones’ team.
“I feel like we kinda gave it to them,” Hornsby conceded.
“I definitely felt that way [like we gave it to them]. We had them down 14 points,” continued Martin. “Then we came out and took some early jumpers and we weren’t making the big plays we needed down the stretch. North Carolina State did a good job of making those types of plays.”
Yet Mickey is the one who left the court like a turtle in his shell, wanting to disappear from the world, and ostensibly feeling the weight of the loss was squarely on his broad shoulders.
“Tim (Quarterman) is a great player,” Mickey started when asked about his teammate in the backcourt. “He came out and did everything he had to do to put us in a position to win the game, and I wasn’t able to finish it for us.”
Commented Martin: “It’s been a very heartbreaking and emotional moment for us as a team. We weren’t ready to end our season just yet. We felt like we could go much farther from all the work that we put in, and we believed in each other. We just weren’t ready for it to end.
“It makes me feel terrible (that Mickey’s so distraught). We’re both brothers. For him to be down like this, we’ve got to find ways to lift each other up. We have to make sure to encourage each other and keep our heads high because it’s not the end of the world. We’ll have more opportunities in this game.”
Quarterman had a slightly different take on why the loss, and the way the game ended, was eating at Mickey so mightily.
“I’m feeling the same way he is. He’s just pouring it out right now because he played through a lot tonight. He played through a lot,” explained Quarterman. “Hats off to him because nobody really knows like what a player goes through. He’s playing through a shoulder (injury). He had something wrong with his blood [iron deficiency]. Hurt his leg during the game. That’s just a lot to go through as a man when you’re out there. I think he had six blocks, a lot of rebounds, points. He did it all. He helped our team a whole lot tonight, even though he probably doesn’t look at it like that.”
However you slice it, one of the top players in the program and in the SEC over the last two years couldn’t make a shot to send his team onto the Round of 32. Any one of the five – the four free throws or the bunny – would’ve all but certainly sealed the deal.
That’s something Mickey will have to live with, a pain that will take time and more successes in basketball to overcome.
But when Mickey was at his lowest inside that locker room, valiantly trying to keep his composure enough to spit out a sentence while weeping so hard he was shaking, he showed his true colors.
“We had a great season. We won 22 games,” Mickey managed, with words escaping his mouth in short hiccups. “We won some road games that people probably didn’t give us a chance to win. I thought we had a great season. We had a great run. I couldn’t be happier for this team.”
That moment, thinking team-first in the midst of the most trying individual moment of his sporting life, got Quarterman’s attention.
“He’s a very good leader. He’s not talkative,” said Quarterman. “He just goes out there and plays, and that’s how he leads. Some people lead through actions. Jordan’s one of them.
“Jordan’s going to be all right. When he’s showing this emotion, that just shows his passion for the game. He’s a big-time player that made big-time plays for us today and has all season. You have to find a way to look into the future as a player. Once you realize that you can’t do anything but look forward.”
Quarterman, with that pearl of wisdom, revealed the character-building side of sports.
That’s a devil Mickey has now danced with. And it might just be the redeeming side of a night he and LSU would prefer to forget.