When it left his hand, he didn't just think he had missed. He thought he had missed everything.
"I thought it was an air ball," former Terps guard Drew Nicholas said. "I was going so fast. It's kind of surreal because I can kind of put myself back in that moment. Dribbling down the floor is kind of a blur, but I remember as I jumped off the one foot I was going so fast I was fading, so I knew however I shot the ball I had to aim it a little bit left because I know my momentum was going to carry me. It was going to carry the ball. So I shot it left, and I didn't think I put enough on it, and honest to God I thought it was an air ball."
It was 15 years ago -- March 21, 2003 -- in Nashville, Tenn. Defending champions and sixth-seeded Maryland men's basketball trailed 11th-seeded UNC Wilmington, 73-72, with five seconds remaining. When then-senior Drew Nicholas received the inbounds pass in the backcourt, he had one thing on his mind.
"Complete tunnel vision to be honest," Nicholas said. "Once the ball was in my hands, I wasn't going to give it up. I had some confidence within myself that I wanted to be the one taking our last shot. So I would have had to have been trapped and had no other options in order for me to get rid of the ball. So that wasn't the case."
Of course, Nicholas
connected on that shot
, a running 3-pointer from the wing that gave Maryland a 75-73 victory. The buzzer-beater would immediately become the most iconic shot in Maryland basketball history, even over others that came in games with higher stakes.
Ahead of the 15th anniversary of the shot, Nicholas -- now a scout for the Minnesota Timberwolves -- reflected on the game, the shot and the many ways it has continued to impact him in the decade and a half since.
UNC Wilmington played really well that night. Freshman guard John Goldsberry went 8-for-8 from 3-point range. Were you at all worried that it might not be your night and you'd get eliminated in the first round?
Drew Nicholas: It was a little ironic just because if I remember correctly, how we scouted them, Goldsberry didn't hit a lot of threes throughout the year. So he was one of the guys who we said, "Alright, if he's going to step out and beat us, then so be it." And then obviously he has the day that he has going 8-for-8. I remember over the course of the game it felt like there was a point in time where we said, "Alright, maybe we have to change up our game plan a little bit because this guy's on fire right now."
UNC Wilmington called a timeout before the play. Do you think anything would have been different about the play had you guys just gone without the timeout?
DN: It probably would have been pretty similar. Again, the first option I think would have been we were going to try to get the ball probably into [guard Steve] Blake's hands, and then me as a secondary option. I'm pretty sure it was going to be somewhat similar.
Can you take me back to that moment and your reaction when you realized it went in?
DN: It's so hard. It's such a surreal moment. My body just took over, and I just started running. I didn't know what I was doing. It was a straight reaction, and I guess kind of going back to it, I think probably the only reason why I ran was because there was no way in hell I wanted the refs to tell me that I didn't get it off in time.
They reviewed the play, but you knew you had gotten it off?
DN: No doubt. Because I remember after I let it go, the ball was in the air and I heard the horn. So I knew that it was good. It wasn't that close. I probably let it go with maybe a half a second or .6 seconds, and that's not really a lot of time but in that moment that's like forever.
If someone hits a shot like that now, they're probably getting Tweeted by LeBron James a couple minutes later. This was pre-Twitter/Instagram. So did you realize then just how significant the moment was?
DN: Probably in the moment, no. I'd probably say the biggest thing at the time that I thought was pretty cool -- in the locker room I remember sitting down with Michael Wilbon, who at the time was with
The Washington Post. It was just me and him, and he was just asking me questions because he was going to do a feature on me. I just thought at that particular time that was pretty cool.
I'm sure you get recognized all the time over the years as the guy who hit "the shot." Is there one interaction in particular that stands out to you?
DN: It's funny man, I don't have one particular one. But the best part is -- I tell people this all the time -- the best part about having a shot like that is being able to hear everybody's story about where they were, what they were doing. One guy told me he was in his parents' house downstairs in the basement, and he jumped up and he broke the glass table. So little stories like that -- that's probably the coolest thing about the shot to be totally honest.
When was the last time you got a free drink or meal because someone realized it was you?
DN: (Laughs) Last time I was in College Park, Md. Anytime I go back to College Park, and I'm not like one of those guys who walks into Cornerstone and comes up to you to be like, "Hey, I'm Drew Nicholas, buy me a drink" or anything like that. But if it comes up in random conversation, yeah, a lot of times I get a free meal or a free drink out of it.
Does it ever bother you that most people remember you only for that shot instead of your otherwise excellent career?
DN: I don't think so, just because I appreciate it. I appreciate people remembering it and wanting to re-live it. So any time I get calls or any time somebody wants to ask about it I'm pretty open, and I tell them exactly what I'm telling you now. And when I tell people all the time that I thought it was an air ball everybody can't believe it. But that's what I thought when I let it go. I was like, "Man, I just shot an air ball to finish my college career."
Did you keep anything from the arena that night?
DN: Just the memory, man. I didn't keep the ball. I didn't keep anything else. I remember that it was my brother's birthday. I remember talking to him -- it was probably earlier that day because throughout my whole career, me and my brother, I would call him every day before the game. I just remember telling him that I was going to get 30 for him because it was his 30th birthday. And I told him I was going to go out and get 30, and I ended up with 22 and that game winner. I think I made up the eight-point differential with that game winner.
You didn't try to go back and get the ball though?
DN: It literally went from, "Oh shit it's an air ball" to … I'm like halfway in the tunnel and I'm like on the bottom of the mosh pit to me doing interviews and then I'm to the locker room. There were no other thoughts outside of that.
Have you ever attempted to re-create the shot?
DN: Nope. That was the one thing I said I would never do. I've probably shot a ball a million times in my life. I'm like, "I'm not shooting that shot ever again."