BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Christian Watford has seen the replay of his buzzer-beating shot dozens of times over the past four months.
Like other big moments in Hoosiers history — the five national championships, the undefeated season, Keith Smart's winner in the 1987 title game — the image of Watford knocking down a 3-pointer in front of his own bench to beat No. 1 Kentucky 73-72 is one of those moments that will be frozen in the mind of every Indiana fan. Everyone, that is, except perhaps the nonchalant 6-foot-9 junior who actually made the shot.
"It's kind of over with now," Watford said Tuesday. "We've just got to move forward."
In Bloomington, moving forward means hanging banners.
The north end of Assembly Hall is covered with cloth representing Big Ten titles, Final Four appearances, NIT championships, poll titles and even an undefeated regular season. The south end is decorated with banners honoring the national championship teams.
If the Hoosiers can beat Kentucky again in Friday night's South Regional semifinal, the Hoosiers (27-8) will suddenly be within one victory of making a surprising addition to the rafters.
But without Watford's shot in December, none of this may have been possible.
"I think it helped the confidence immensely that they can prepare like they did, that they can play with that kind of intensity and that they can get the right result out of it. I think, very importantly, though, we learned a lot in that game," coach Tom Crean said. "Our team was very young in that game and we played with tremendous intensity and enthusiasm and did some excellent things, but we were also very young, and I'd like to think that in the months' time that we've really matured in our decision-making and how to finish games."
The victory provided more than a morale boost or a learning experience.
It also cemented Indiana's resurgence.
At the time, the Hoosiers were 8-0 but had not cracked the Top 25 because they had taken on schools such as Savannah State, Gardner-Webb and Stetson. Beating Kentucky suddenly legitimized what those inside the program already knew: Indiana basketball was ready to be relevant again on the national stage.
"A lot of people didn't think we were very good then," Watford said. "Once we got that win, things changed."
Watford, one of the cornerstones in Crean's second recruiting class, became a star. Over the next 72 hours, his phone rang incessantly, text messages and emails poured in, and it seemed he couldn't go anywhere without seeing the shot in commercials, on highlight shows. School officials quickly added it to the pregame montage on the scoreboard.
Around campus, the T-shirts reading "We're Back" became fashionable, and some started chanting between classes.
The seniors, who sometimes felt shunned during a 6-25 freshman season, emerged as some of the most popular personalities in Bloomington.
And the Hoosiers used the momentum from the Kentucky upset to pull off other successes — beating No. 2 Ohio State three weeks later, preventing No. 5 Michigan State from clinching the outright Big Ten title at Assembly Hall, winning more than 25 games for the first time in two decades and now making their deepest tourney run since reaching the 2002 championship game.
But the easygoing Alabama native never wanted the attention and refused to get caught up in the accolades.
Instead, he and senior point guard Verdell Jones, who made the pass to Watford for the winner, took control of the team's next practice.
"There was nobody that came in that we had to bring back to earth or sequester — I mean, none of that," Crean said. "But I thought Christian and Verdell stood out in how competitive they were, and it really took off from there."
What happened on that final play, of course, depends on the perspective.
Indiana fans will forever remember Jones dribbling up the court and flipping the ball to Watford, who knocked down the 3 and fell to the floor. Within seconds, students covered almost every inch of the court. Some players and athletic director Fred Glass jumped up on the scorer's table; others were hoisted into the air by students and still others raced into the stands to celebrate with their parents.
"It's one of those moments you never forget," senior guard Matt Roth said.
Kentucky coach John Calipari remembers it another way.
With two fouls to give and 5.6 seconds to play, he instructed the Wildcats to take advantage of the foul situation. But Jones dribbled up the floor unimpeded, made the nifty pass and Watford got the shot off before he could be touched.
Yet Watford had the worst view of all.
After making the shot and hitting the deck, he only heard the celebration erupt.
"I remember being trampled by the fans. A lot of people got on me, and I couldn't breathe," he said. "I told (teammate) Tom (Pritchard) to get 'em off me and he started throwing 'em off."
Watford has decided his job is to work toward creating another memory and let everyone else focus on the replay.
"I don't really watch it," Watford said. "But ESPN does a great job of broadcasting it."
Follow Michael Marot on Twitter @apmarot