EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- If there was any justice in the world, any mercy, any milk of human kindness, the ball would have swished through the net. After all, fair's fair (Confucius).
Mark Macon was sure he had a bull's eye. Hey, who would know better than a guy who had dropped 2,609 points through the hoop for Temple during the last 125 games?
The contest wasn't riding on the three-point shot heard 'round the world -- uh, from Philadelphia to Chapel Hill at least -- dispatched by Macon with three seconds remaining. Just overtime. Chances are even a few North Carolina fans would not have minded five more minutes of action, so gripping was the Tar Heels' 75-72 ticket to the Final Four.
In the end, no matter what or how strong the allegiance, the Meadowlands Arena crowd of 19,601 won't soon forget the pluck of the team from Philadelphia and its senior leader.
Picture yourself falling 10 points behind the ability, reputation and tradition of Carolina and going scoreless during the first 4 1/2 minutes. Temple didn't slink away, but if Macon hadn't taken matters into his own hands, the blanking might have reached embarrassing proportions.
He hit a three-pointer, then another and a deuce off his steal. Nine minutes into the game and in spite of their horrendous start, the Owls had caught and passed N.C., 16-14, and Macon had 15 points.
The game now had "final seconds" written all over it and, if it got down to the end, the underdogs felt very good about their chances. "I can't explain what a confident feeling it gives you having Mark on your side," confessed Mik Kilgore, who, together with his mate, was named to the all-tournament team.
The Tar Heels, who seem to let their concentration slip a bit if they're too far in front, got a lead back in double figures five minutes into the second half. Macon from 19 feet, count it! Macon from 22 feet, bang!
But his marksmanship is to be expected. Let's look at the other things. Temple coach John Chaney's priorities number three in order of importance: defense, defense and (almost as an afterthought) points. Macon is instructed, nay encouraged, to let the ball fly when the spirit moves him, which is most times down the court.
He needs assistance from time to time, however, and that's where Kilgore and Vic Castarphen, pixie point guard, come in. The latter was having a horrid time of it, going 0-for-the first half and the first seven minutes after intermission. What to do, what to do?
Chaney dialed M for you know who. "We decided to put the ball in Mark's hands coming up the floor," said the coach. "Carolina pressured him [without much success] and this opened it up for the other guys."
Suddenly, Castarphen's earlier air balls were three-pointers, in triplicate. And Kilgore was coming to life, too. "Yeah, I guess you could say I've made Mik a better player," said Macon, "because he does a lot of the things I do and I certainly didn't copy him."
Sound a bit boastful or self-centered? Not really. To a man the Owls admit they'd be nowhere without Macon and that goes almost double for the seemingly hard-bitten Chaney. It was with moist eyes that the coach said, "It's a dream of every coach to get to the Final Four.
"I wanted so much to give these kids an opportunity to get there. And, especially, a very special young man like Mark. I wanted it more for him than anybody else. He has meant so much for so many people."
Teammates listened as the tribute tumbled along and, far from taking umbrage, joined in. "No doubt Mark's the reason I came to Temple," said Kilgore, a West Philly kid only a year Macon's junior.
And the guys in Carolina blue weren't sparing in their testimonial, either. "The amazing thing is," said North Carolina's motorman King Rice, "whenever he shot the ball and said, 'Good,' it always went in."
Macon explained the "good," or "close" or "off left" calls have always been part of his modus operandi as he let fly. That's why, with a couple of seconds remaining, everyone figured this one was headed for OT when Mark tossed up career peg No. 2,318 with his full stamp of approval.
"Of course, I think all my shots are going to go in, basically," rTC Macon admitted. The stat sheets had been out for a while and, in direct contrast to the first thing players at all levels do under the circumstances, Mark hadn't checked his line. It read 12-for-23 (4-for-9 in threes), three foul shots, nine rebounds, two steals and 31 points. He was East Regional MVP by about a mile.
"Even without those numbers I'd feel great. I always do after every game. My dreams are fulfilled and I have no regrets leaving," he said, perhaps noting too many first-person singulars in his assessment. "Maybe the young guys will gain from this experience and take us a little farther next time."
Nice touch. Just like on that last shot . . . almost.