How James Forrest taught me an important NCAA Tournament bracket lesson

When 0.8 seconds is too much time on the clock.

It was 26 years ago when I was at my most vulnerable and learned a valuable lesson thanks to the Harold Miner-led USC Trojans and James Forrest in the NCAA Tournament.

A lot of extended family were in town at my grandma’s house in Palm Springs, looking to unwind after her funeral earlier in the day. She died four days earlier, on St. Patrick’s Day, after living a full 78 years.

My grandma was my best friend. I spent many days after school as well as weekends at her house, playing cards and watching sports. I took her death particularly hard and needed some joy after the funeral, in the form of watching USC in the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

I was too naive to know it at the time, but this was the best USC basketball team I would ever see. Miner was going to be a superstar, I was convinced. That ended up not working out, but in the college ranks he was sublime. “Baby Jordan” averaged 26.3 points as a junior that season, was an All-American, and was the Pac-10 Player of the Year.

USC was 24-6, and their 15-3 record in conference was the best of my lifetime. They finished second in the Pac-10 that year, something they have only done three times since, including this season. Usually, watching Trojans basketball involves tempering expectations, but I was smitten with that 1992 team, and for good reason.

The Trojans were an actual No. 2 seed, ranked eighth in the country in the final Associated Press poll. That doesn’t happen.

After dispatching Louisiana-Monroe with ease in the first round, USC was having trouble in the Midwest Region second round with a plucky Georgia Tech squad. But after trailing most of the game the Trojans battled back, and reserve guard Rodney Chatman hit a shot from the baseline with just 2.2 seconds left to give USC a 78-76 lead.

The Yellow Jackets dribbled off Chatman’s leg out of bounds near midcourt which allowed them to advance the ball, but there were only 0.8 seconds remaining.

I pulled out my trusty NCAA Tournament bracket and wrote USC into the Sweet 16 where they would play the Penny Hardaway-led Memphis Tigers in the Sweet 16. I wrote “USC” in pen.

That brings us to today’s lesson, thanks to what happened next.

Forrest’s prayer three, along with Al McGuire’s call on CBS, is one of the iconic moments in NCAA Tournament history, but to me all he was on this day was a dream crusher.

And a bracket buster.

To this day, 26 years later, I have one rule when filling out my NCAA bracket: Never fill in the winner until the game is officially done. You never know what could happen when you don’t miss the Forrest for the trees.

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