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Third inbound’s the charm: UC Riverside stuns ASU on buzzer-beating 70-foot heave

Miraculous sequence gives Highlanders resume-boosting win and national spotlight

NCAA Basketball: UC Riverside at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Zyon Pullin gathers the ball quickly under the basket on the far baseline. The point guard has seen his UC Riverside Highlanders hold their own and then some on the road at Arizona State Thursday night in Tempe, but Sun Devil guard Luther Muhammad had just put ASU on top, 65-63, on a difficult floater with just 1.7 seconds remaining.

UCR has played well in each of their first two games against tough competition — at San Diego State and now at ASU — but, likely, would have nothing to show for it.

Pullin, with his 10 points, eight boards and eight assists, has been a huge reason why the Highlanders had battled back from multiple five-point deficits in the second half.

“Zyon stepped up with his backcourt mate [Dominick Pickett] out,” Highlanders head coach Mike Magpayo said after the game, “and played with a ton of poise down the stretch.”

But still, it looks like they’re going to come up just short.

Pullin throws a long inbounds pass up the sideline. It’s a good one. Wil Tattersall catches it a few feet past midcourt and slips past a defender as he does. The second-year player struggled from deep on this night — he missed 7 of 8 from deep, including one that would have given them the lead on the previous possession but it appears he will have a great look. He takes a step, then maybe travels with his next, seemingly all in slow-mo. Uncontested, he floats one up for the win.

Off the rim. No good.

But a barrage of whistles comes through somewhere during that sequence. Perhaps Tattersall traveled, or got his shot off a bit late, or maybe there was some violation committed elsewhere.

In fact, the refs blew the play dead before it even started, wanting to confirm the clock was correct after the last basket. (It was, and the delay came much to the chagrin of the Pac-12 Network announcers.) UCR will get another shot, but it’s hard to imagine getting a better look than the one they just had.

This time, Tattersall is the trigger-man. He sees JP Moorman II on the left side, with a considerable amount of open space around him, and leads him with a pass. One and seven tenths of a second isn’t a lot of time, but his momentum is going forward, and with all that space in front of him, he might be able to catch, dribble once or twice and really step into his shot.

The ball goes right through his hands.

But just as the ball is going through his hands, more whistles. Violation on the Highlanders?

Nope. The clock started well before Moorman II touched it.

One more try.

Tattersall shuffles back and forth on the baseline. He’s running out of options and needs to get it in. He sees Moorman on the left again, but this time Moorman is going away from the basket with an ASU defender close by. Tattersall whips the pass in, and it just grazes the fingertips of the defender going for the steal. Moorman bobbles it just a bit, spins and has no choice but to heave it from 70 feet away.

Swish.

Onions.

Ball game.

Riverside 66, Arizona State 65.

The arena lets out a sharp howl, like all of its fans had simultaneously been gut-punched, and then falls silent — except for the euphoria of the UCR team and its supporters who made the short trek from Riverside to Tempe.

Moorman, a fifth-year transfer from Temple, finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds, and four assists, hitting a couple of key shots down the stretch including what may be the biggest shot in UCR history and the highlight of the young college hoops season. He and his Highlander team have now been thrust into the national spotlight, with the moment being featured on ESPN as Scott Van Pelt’s “best thing he saw today” and SportsCenter’s top play.

From Magpayo’s perspective, the glorious moment could hardly have happened to anyone better.

“JP is a pro and has been such a fantastic addition to our culture, our team, our program and our university,” he said. “He had Chris Paul, who is a mentor of his from North Carolina, come talk to our guys this morning. I thought that was the highlight of the day until he swished that shot!”

Not featured in the final sequence but instrumental all night was Flynn Cameron, who bounced back from a tough first game to torch the Sun Devils with 18 points on 6 of 8 shooting from deep.

“Flynn was fantastic,” Magpayo said. “I judge our offense by how many threes he’s getting up, make or miss, and today he got a bunch up and they went in. He has the ultimate green light.”

Magpayo, a friend of the blog, has had a bit more than “normal” pressure on him in his second year at the helm.

Then as the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked financial havoc everywhere in the summer of 2020, UC Riverside, one of the country’s most subsidized programs, considered discontinuing its athletic program completely to cut costs. Its basketball team played an entire season with its future existence in total limbo until the university chancellor finally announced this past May that the athletic program would continue. Still, significant damage had been done: recruiting efforts suffered, permanent budget restrictions were introduced, and the tough reality remains that if the university was that close to cutting athletics this time around, it could certainly come up down the line.

In the face of all that, every win is going to count.

“I had no problem with the way we played against San Diego State,” Magpayo said. “It was high level competition and our guys competed well … and we kept the same approach going into ASU. Prepare to win. We are past overcoming adversity and focused on this season. As [big man Callum McRae] says, ‘teams have to compete with us now.’”

“Our program is continuing to build. We have a great culture of workers, and over the last three years the guys’ work has developed their talent individually and collectively.”

Of course, if the shot is three inches off in any direction, the ball agonizingly clangs off the rim (à la Gordan Hayward in the title game) and the Highlanders drop to 0-2. Had the full-court heave missed (which most do), it doesn’t reflect on the team being any better or worse — the admiration lies in fighting hard enough to be toe-to-toe on the road against a power conference foe at the very end.

Magpayo knows that.

“Our associate head Coach Mike Czepil always tells us, ‘Find a way to put yourself in a position to win a game under four minutes,’ We were in position,” he said.

“And then JP made a heckuva play for UCR Basketball.”

He sure did.