Jonathan Stark gave Tulane’s flagging season a jolt of energy with one of the best buzzer-beating shots in school history against Cincinnati. The next challenge for the Green Wave is channeling that magical moment into a strong stretch run.
When Tulane (14-10, 5-7 American Athletic Conference) faces Central Florida (11-13, 4-9) on Thursday night at Devlin Fieldhouse, Stark and his teammates can’t be too caught up in what happened Sunday to focus on the Knights. After ending a five-game losing streak and snapping Cincinnati’s seven-game conference home win streak at the same time, the Green Wave has a chance to finish significantly higher in the conference standings than the coaches’ preseason prediction of last place.
Tulane is in seventh place out of 11, and three of its remaining six games are against the AAC’s bottom three teams.
“It gives us a lot of confidence and keeps us going,” Stark said. “We just have to stay focused and practice hard every day, and we can get it done.”
First, a recap is in order. Tulane, which led most of the way against Cincinnati, appeared headed for another frustrating loss when the Bearcats’ Gary Clark sank a short shot in the lane with 4.7 seconds left to break a tie at 47.
Instead, Tulane’s Louis Dabney quickly inbounded to Stark, who almost lost control of the ball on his first dribble. Stark had time to gather it when Cincinnati’s Farad Cobb backed off, then raced up the court after changing direction to avoid big man Octavius Ellis.
After his fifth dribble, he went up about 30 feet from the goal and double-clutched as Cobb contested it from the side and Cincinnati’s Troy Caupain jumped straight up in front of him.
The ball came out of Stark’s hand with three-tenths of a second left.
Swish. Game over. Tulane 50, Cincinnati 49.
Stark stood still with one arm raised over his head before his teammates mobbed him on the court.
“It looked good when it left my hand, but I was kind of shocked myself, actually,” Stark said. “The emotions really didn’t come to me at once.”
Playing the top six teams in the AAC consecutively, Tulane had lost its first five. That made the celebration feel even sweeter when the Wave finally beat an NCAA tournament-caliber team.
The players did not need to wait for an official review that confirmed Stark released the ball before time ran out.
“We played so good in that game and so hard,” Dabney said. “Our shooting percentage for the whole team, and me as well, wasn’t that good, but it was a great team win.”
Coach Ed Conroy liked everything about the execution on the final play and felt it carried over from the way Tulane played all day, when the Green Wave led 19-13 at the half. As is his custom, he elected not to call a timeout after the Bearcats’ basket.
“We always are showing game situations not only of our own games but of the other teams,” he said. “You have to have conviction, and with over four seconds left on the clock, we feel like it’s best not to call time. We’re going to get it and go. Sometimes the results don’t go your way, but we’re going to stick with what we believe in. It’s tough to get a better shot than that if you let the defense set up.”
The Wave hopes the game-winner ended more than a losing streak and will help it emerge from a prolonged shooting slump. Since being named AAC Player of the Week for his torrid stretch in Tulane’s first two conference games, Stark was 29-of-112 from the floor (25.9 percent) until his buzzer beater. “I wanted to make the shot a lot,” he said. “I had missed a few shots in key possessions, but I just kept my confidence and kept rolling.”
Dabney, Tulane’s leading scorer, is 14-for-59 (23.7 percent) in the past five games.
Those miserable numbers should start changing against Central Florida, , which is last in the league in field-goal percentage defense and beat Tulane 103-100 in triple overtime last month in Orlando, Florida.
“It was great to beat a team like Cincinnati, as good as they are, and just to see that all the stuff we worked on in practice come into effect,” Dabney said. “We’ve grinded and grinded. I’m looking forward to no overtimes and us coming out on top this time. We have to settle this one.”