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VU'S SHOT 20 YEARS LATER: Former Valparaiso players look back on 1998 Sweet Sixteen run

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Valparaiso's head coach Homer Drew hugs his son, Bryce Drew

Valparaiso's head coach Homer Drew hugs his son, Bryce Drew, after Bryce hit a game-winning 3-point shot, at the buzzer, to beat Mississippi 70-69 in the first round of the NCAA Midwest Regional on March 13, 1998 in Oklahoma City.

JOHN GAPS III, File, Associated Press

Twenty years later, The Shot still goes in. 

Every March, Valparaiso University is introduced to a new audience of college basketball fans around the world.

For those who saw The Shot live, maybe they can remember every detail of the play, what they were wearing when Jamie Sykes threw the pass, where they were watching when Bill Jenkins made the catch. How they reacted when Bryce Drew made The Shot as the Crusaders beat Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 NCAA tournament. 

Or maybe they’re seeing it for the first time. The short video clip that has become synonymous with March Madness. They could hardly know the pass was thrown by a professional baseball player. They don’t know the catch was made by a player who had a twin brother on the team. They’ve never heard that the shot was taken by a son who invited his own father into his living room to make a recruiting pitch for the hometown university. 

The words from Todd Ickow, the longtime Voice of the Crusaders, form the soundtrack to one of the defining moments of Valparaiso University and one of the greatest plays in NCAA tournament history.  

Ickow said: “They’ve got to go the length of the court with 2.5 left…Sykes long pass…Bill Jenkins…Drew’s 3 for the win…Gooooood, GOOD. Valpo wins. VALPO wins. VALPO WINS. Bryce Drew hits a 3 and the Crusaders have moved into the second round. Bryce Drew hit a 3-pointer to win this game 70-to-69. The kid performs another miracle.” 

Twenty years later, The Shot still goes in. 

“Every time I see the play on CBS during March Madness it always brings back wonderful memories,” former Valparaiso head coach Homer Drew said just days ahead of Tuesday’s 20th anniversary of Valparaiso's win over Ole Miss.  “The best thing about watching it now is I know that Bryce makes it every time.”

The key players involved in Valparaiso’s improbable run to the Sweet Sixteen spoke with The Times over the last week to share their memories of the March 13 victory over Ole Miss in Oklahoma City as well as the second-round win over Florida State two days later and the subsequent season-ending loss to Rhode Island in St. Louis a week later.  

Bryce Drew - 1998 NCAA Press Conference

Valparaiso University men's basketball coach Homer Drew and his son Bryce Drew joke with the media after defeating Florida State University in 1998 in the second round of the NCAA tournament in Oklahoma City.

20 years of memories

Time has a way of changing some of those memories. For instance, Valparaiso big man Antanas “Tony” Vilcinskas, now living in Belgium, remembers running through the play, called “Pacer,” every day at the end of practice with Bryce connecting on the shot “more than 60 percent of the time.” Sykes, who nearly missed out on his senior season to begin a professional baseball career, remembers it differently. 

“We probably practiced it once a week,” Sykes said. “The play just never worked. It’s just an unnatural thing to practice against no one else. It was never timed well. It never really worked.” 

That didn’t mean the Crusaders weren’t going to give it a shot after Ole Miss star Ansu Sesay missed two crucial free throws with 4.1 seconds left and the Rebels leading 69-67. Drew called his final timeout after Sesay’s first miss and then the ball bounced out of bounds following the second miss. 

Time has a way of bringing out the truth and Sykes wasn’t shy about what happened on the penultimate play of the game. 

“There’s no doubt that Bill (Jenkins) knocked the ball out of bounds,” Sykes said. “We couldn’t believe it. We just looked at each other and said ‘Oh well, it’s our ball.’ It should’ve been Ole Miss ball. We got away with one there.” 

Bryce Drew - 1998 NCAA Sweet Sixteen

Valparaiso's Bryce Drew drives around Rhode Island's Preston Murphy (32) during their semifinal game in the NCAA Midwest Regional at the Kiel Center in St. Louis on Friday, March 20, 1998. Drew was high scorer in the game with 18 points but in a losing cause as Valparaiso lost the game 74-68.

While getting the ball back was a boost for the Crusaders, they were still 94 feet from their basket and with no timeouts. A team full of experienced seniors is like one heartbeat, one brain, thinking and moving as one. It’s not clear which player called out “Pacer,” but everyone knew what was expected. It began with Sykes needing to get Keith Carter, the taller Ole Miss defender, off his feet. 

“For me as one of the captains, it was instant,” Sykes said. “I turned and yelled out the play. Then there were a couple different feelings. The first was I didn’t think we had any chance. Let’s just run the damn play and get out of here, it’s over. The second was I had seen a Duke and Georgia Tech game earlier in the year and Tech was down, had to go the length of the floor. I watched that and knew I had to get my guy to jump. I gave him a few pump fakes and he finally bit. I threw the pass and for some strange reason, I knew the play was working.” 

The play

The ball floated through the air toward Jenkins for what seemed like an eternity. Dynasties were built in less time and the seniors were about to see their dynasty end with nothing but Mid-Continent Conference glory after winning four straight regular-season and conference tournament titles. The seniors took the floor feeling they needed to win a NCAA tournament game to legitimize their careers. 

“There was some pressure, but it was self-inflicted,” Bill Jenkins said. “We were well aware of the talent on the floor and we had tasted the tournament. We knew what success looked like and it was time. At the end of the day that’s all good and great, but we needed to cap this off.” 

In order to do that, Jenkins needed to catch the ball and flip it to Drew in one motion. In order to do that, he needed to outjump the Ole Miss defenders. The play barely worked in practice and now there were talented players double teaming Jenkins. 

“We practiced it enough that it became automatic,” Jenkins said. “You knew your role and when it was time, you knew what you had to do. The adrenaline was racing and everything became more elevated. I jumped higher than I’d ever jumped. It was crazy because it was so fast, catching and passing and turning toward the bucket. I didn’t even see him shoot it, but when I saw the trajectory, I couldn’t wait to land and celebrate. After years of watching Bryce shoot, I knew that was it, but he’ll tell you he thought it was short.” 

By the time the ball ended up in Drew’s hands, the moment was frozen in time. The blue-chip prospect turned best player in school history rose up to take a program-altering shot in front of his father-turned-coach.

If the shot falls short or rims out, it’s just another example of a mid-major Cinderella watching the clock hit midnight before it ever really got to the party.

If the shot hits, pandemonium. Applications to the school will hit an all-time high, admissions will soar, an overlooked university in a high school-minded town will suddenly become the country’s darlings. Alums will dust off their letter jackets and proudly donate to fundraising campaigns that will give way to an explosion of new buildings on campus. The school will become a national brand overnight, but only if the shot becomes The Shot. 

“In my mind I can still feel the moment and it still blows me away,” Bryce Drew said. “I had a shot just before (Sesay’s free throws) and when I missed, it was devastating. I had a peace about the whole situation and I became focused on the next play. Now the more that I’ve coached, you realize how difficult the first two parts were. The pass, and then the catch and the pass. The timing and the effectiveness, those two often get overlooked. The shooting was probably the easiest part.” 

Twenty years later, The Shot still goes in. 

Pacer perfect

“It’s still amazing to me today,” Homer Drew said. “Its been 20 years and people still come up to me and tell me they remember The Shot and where they were. There were phone calls from Israel with people telling me the saw it. It really was an international shot that was truly heard around the world. The impact is all over, from admissions to fundraising. It gave Valparaiso University a national and an international name.” 

March Madness has arrived this year.

Valparaiso’s season ended nearly two weeks ago when the Crusaders were knocked out of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Ironically, Bryce Drew also saw his 2017-18 season come to an end at the Scottrade Center when Vanderbilt was eliminated from the Southeastern Conference tournament six days later. Perhaps it was fitting that both programs ended their season in the same building that Bryce Drew and the Crusaders saw their Sweet Sixteen run come to an end against Rhode Island in 1998. 

Bryce Drew will spend much of the next month preparing for the upcoming season as he’s embroiled in a recruiting war with Indiana and Kansas for the services of New Albany star Romeo Langford. Homer Drew will watch his son, Scott, coach Baylor in the NIT this month after the Bears were one of the first four teams left out of the NCAA tournament field.

Sykes and Jenkins have long left competitive basketball along with most of their former teammates, but they haven’t stopped being basketball fans, and they haven’t stopped being brothers. Each player still speaks of a bond that was cemented long before Valpo became a household name and has endured long after Drew’s shot has faded into just another montage of March Madness highlights.