The one thing Kerry Thompson wanted to be in front of the home crowd was a big shot.
He did better than that. He made the big shot.
Everything after that Tuesday night might as well have been preordained. When the Florida State junior from New York City converted a three-pointer from the top of the key with 3.9 seconds left in regulation, the air seemed to seep out of Connecticut. The overtime, except for the first shot, belonged to the Seminoles.
And with its 71-65 victory over the Huskies, FSU advanced to the championship game of the NIT. It meets the winner of Tuesday's semifinal between Michigan and Arkansas on Thursday.
"We were able to show what kind of ballclub we really are," said James Collins, whose hot hand from three-point range and game-high 29 points (tying his career high) kept the Seminoles in contention until Thompson hit his game-saver. "Unfortunately, we had to show it so late in the year. If we'd showed it early, maybe we could have been able to do this in the NCAA Tournament."
With UConn up 59-56 and going for the killer, Rashamel Jones, who hit a three-pointer with a minute to go, put up an airball and FSU roared downcourt. FSU didn't call a timeout. It was, coach Pat Kennedy reasoned, the only thing that might have killed the 'Noles.
"You do that with an inexperienced team," he said. "We don't. Kerry had the ball. He's done it for us before. If we'd called timeout, it would have let (the Huskies) set the defense. It would have broken our momentum. They could have changed defenses. This way, they had to play us man to man. I wanted Kerry to take it."
And Kerry wanted Collins to take it.
"That's who I was looking for," Thompson said. "The clock was running down. They were all over James. I was definitely going to him, but the way they were playing him, well, I'd rather shoot it than put it in somebody else's hands besides James."
Ricky Moore was guarding Thompson. Jim Calhoun, the UConn coach, had warned him during a timeout moments earlier: "If we don't score (in the final seconds of regulation), give them the layup. With 10 seconds on the clock we wanted them to go (to the) hole. That was the situation, and here we let (Thompson) take a big-time shot and he made it."
The Huskies still had one last chance to win it in regulation. Moore took the inbounds pass and raced downcourt _ but with barely a second left he looked for UConn's hot hand, Richard Hamilton, and tried a pass. Collins stole it.
It was the last play by a defense that finally found its rhythm. "When we got behind," Kennedy said, "we started half-court trapping. Then we went to a 2-3 zone. we were absolutely exhausted and we went to the zone for a few possessions just to slow the tempo and get out energy back. Most important, at the end of the game, when we had to get the stops, James Collins did a great job on Hamilton."
Once the game went into overtime, the Seminole defense went into overdrive. It allowed Hamilton, who seemed to be trying to match Collins bomb for bomb in the second half, to put UConn ahead 61-59. It was the last time the Huskies would lead.
Collins knocked down the last of his threes and, after a Hamilton miss, Jackson converted a jumper from the paint.
He was only starting. Jackson sprinted downcourt and blocked a jumper by Jones. Then began a series of FSU free throws.
"We outplayed them," Calhoun said. "But we didn't take advantage of the situation. We had them five up (59-54) with a minute to go. Once you get to overtime, other factors sometimes take over _ and obviously they did."