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The miss heard ’round the world

March 30, 2016

Basketball stars recount the miracle play that went viral

It’s amazing how one missed shot can change your life.

Life was pretty good for Sam Borst-Smith ’17 before February 7. The English major from San Pedro, California, a suburb of Los Angeles, had started all but one game for the men’s basketball team and was the Yellowjackets’ leading scorer. He was also one of their top free-throw shooters, making 80 percent of his shots.

That all became a footnote the first Sunday in February. Borst-Smith went to the free throw line with Rochester trailing Chicago 76-73 and just 2.7 seconds left in overtime at the University’s Palestra.

“As soon as the game ended, our coach said ‘We have to go cut this clip and send it to ESPN.’ I just laughed. As if we’d ever be on ESPN. It literally was a dream come true.”

He swished his first free throw. 76-74.

Then, he knew he had to intentionally miss the second free throw to give the Yellowjackets a chance at winning the game.

Borst-Smith fired the basketball off the front end of the rim. It bounced back to him, and he passed it to teammate Mack Montague ’17, a financial economics and psychology double major from Westport, Connecticut, on the left wing. Montague swished a 3-point shot before the buzzer sounded, giving Rochester a most improbable win and sending players and fans into a frenzy.

Video of the play quickly went viral, with 80,000 hits on YouTube the first day. It aired on ESPN’s SportsCenter and was second on the sports network’s “Top 10 Plays of the Day.” Number 1 came from another game played that day – the Super Bowl between the Denver Broncos and the Carolina Panthers.

Rochester’s stunning play was written about in the New York Post and on FoxSports.com. Popular sports websites like Deadspin and Bleacher Report ran the clip, and the YouTube hit count surged to 600,000. Montague has a friend in France who said the shot aired there. The play also ran on Australian TV.

Then, a German public TV station contacted Rochester sports information director Dennis O’Donnell asking for permission to air the play. In a nation known more for soccer than basketball, the clip quickly amassed 500,000 hits.

But the best was saved for last. O’Donnell and assistant Scott Sabocheck nominated Borst-Smith for the national State Farm Assist of the Year Award (see video). He overwhelmed the competition in the early rounds, then cruised to victory in the finals, beating players from two highly successful Division I teams – Kentucky’s Tyler Ulis and Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine.

Borst-Smith will fly to Houston on Thursday morning, and his unlikely play will be shown to the crowd at NRG Stadium that evening. ESPN will also broadcast the video of the shot during its live coverage of the 2016 Slam Dunk & 3-Point Competition on Thursday, March 31 in Houston, site of the Division I men’s Final Four. The show runs from 9-11 p.m.

espn basketball logo
Broadcast schedule of the 2016 College Slam/3-Point Shooting contests in Houston, Texas on ESPN and its affiliates:

Live: Thursday, March 31: 9:00-11:00pm ET on ESPN

Friday, April 1: 1:00-3:00am ET on ESPNU

Friday, April 1: 8:00-10:00am ET on ESPNU

Saturday, April 2: 2:00-4:00pm ET on ESPN

Saturday, April 2: 5:30-7:30pm ET on ESPN2

Sunday, April 3: 5:00-7:00pm ET on ESPNU

Monday, April 4: 4:00-6:00am ET on ESPNU

Tuesday, April 12: 7:00-9:00pm ET on ESPN2

Saturday, April 16: 7:00-9:00pm ET on ESPN2

The video has been seen more than 1 million times. How many times have YOU seen it?

Sam: Hundreds, probably. I’m still watching it here and there. Not as much as I was the first week, but I’ll go and check it out, usually on my phone or desktop. I’ll be on my Facebook and see it pop up, and I’ll have to go watch it again.

Mack: Same with me. My parents made a little YouTube account with a clip to the link, so I can see it anytime I want. Keep alive the memory.

Mack, you’ve never made a buzzer-beating shot before, right?

Mack: Never. But I’ve practiced countless times in the driveway like any kid, counting down ‘3-2-1…’ and pretending I’m an NBA superstar.

Let’s go to the play itself. Sam, you bounce the ball three times, roll it in your hands and set yourself to shoot. Did you think the Chicago players knew what you were up to?

 Sam: I think they knew I was going to miss. I don’t think they knew how I was trying to miss. If they got the rebound, it was going to be game over. Fortunately for us, we got the ball back and got the shot off. But I definitely think they saw it coming.

You didn’t exactly do what your head coach, Luke Flockerzi, hoped.

Sam: No (laughs). Coach wanted me to miss the free throw to the right or left side of the rim, but I went against his wishes and tried to hit it right off the front. Sorry, Coach Flockerzi.

Mack, what did you think was going to happen? Did you know Sam was trying to miss?

Mack: Yeah, I knew exactly what should happen, but I didn’t know how it would occur. The way it happened, with Sam throwing it off the front of the rim, was kind of a magical moment.

Sam, you had a similar situation at Emory University on Jan. 9, needing to miss a free throw to give your team a chance. It didn’t work out that day, as Rochester lost 78-75.

Sam: I think I missed left at Emory. We still had a chance, but the Emory guy who got the rebound was just a bit longer and in better position.

The bounce off the rim and back to you wasn’t perfect.
It was a little to your left, and you had to jump to grab it. What were you thinking then?

Sam: To be honest, I wasn’t thinking at all. It was a spur of the moment thing. It wasn’t a big thing that it came off to the left. In basketball, you’re always moving laterally anyway.

You guys are best friends . Sam, how much of a comfort was it to see it was Mack on the left side?

Sam: Honestly, I couldn’t have asked for anyone better. We see each other every morning. He lives right next to me. The next morning, we were like, ‘Dude, did we actually just do that?’ Who better than Mack to make it.

Mack, you shot immediately. Were you worried the buzzer would go off before you got the ball out of your hand?

Mack: It’s hard to worry at a time like that. I kind of was just focused on winning the game.

Were you surprised the Chicago player next to you wasn’t guarding you closer? He didn’t seem to take off after you until it was too late.

Mack: It’s funny, his coach yelled something at him just as Sam was taking the shot, warning him about the play. (The player) looked back at his coach, so I think he was kind of distracted, and that gave me an edge. It was kind of a break for me.

As soon as the ball swished through, Sam rushed over to Mack and the two of you body-slammed in the air. Mack fell down and Sam nearly did. Talk about your emotions at that moment.

 Sam: I wasn’t thinking at all. Those are the kinds of moments when you just let loose, when you can’t control your emotions. I know right when I hit Mack, I started running away from everyone else. I don’t know why, but that’s what happened.

How many times have you tried to duplicate that play since it happened?

Sam: Dozens, probably. I know we did for a couple of media shoots. It was nowhere as perfect as the one against Chicago.

Do you think in 100 shots you could do it?

Sam: Maybe, but probably not as good as that one shot.

Let’s talk about the aftermath of it. This is Super Bowl Sunday, and you guys wind up the No. 2 play of the day on ESPN after the Super Bowl. All the hits on YouTube, the media coverage . . . could either of you have dreamed it would go outside of the Palestra and go viral?

Mack: As soon as the game ended, our coach said ‘We have to go cut this clip and send it to ESPN.’ I just laughed. As if we’d ever be on ESPN. It literally was a dream come true.

One of the crazier things that happened was a German public television station aired the clip, and 500,000 people in Germany watched it. How do you explain that?

One of my good friends from my high school back in L.A. is from Germany. I told him, ‘Hey, we got on this news station, have you ever heard of it? He said (the play) was a huge deal in Germany.

Then you’re entered in the State Farm Assist of the Year contest and you win easily against players from Kentucky and Michigan State, two pretty good basketball programs.

I’m very blessed and grateful to have so many friends and family members supporting me. It’s just a really good feeling.

Now you’re heading to Houston, site of this weekend’s Final Four. Is this a pinch-me-I’m-still-dreaming moment?

Sam: I never thought I’d do to the site of the Final Four. It just shows what sports can do for you.

What has been the reaction on campus?

Mack: I think definitely a week or two after the play happened things were crazy. People would come up and introduce themselves, and we’d never seen them before. Or friends that we hadn’t talked to since fifth grade that contacted us through Facebook.

Sam: I’ve met some new people, made some new friends, and had people say hi to me I’ve never met before.

Mack’s shot won the game, but the missed free throw has kind of changed your life, Sam. How ironic is that?

Sam: I don’t think I’ve ever been praised for missing a shot before. I guess there’s a first time for everything. But if it wins us games, that’s all that matters.

Mack: This is the one shining moment of our college career, so far.

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