Wright, the University of Cincinnati men’s basketball team’s point guard, should have been basking in the school’s first NCAA tournament victory in six years. Instead, he was in crippling pain. Already hobbled by a balky knee that had been operated on twice since the Georgia native had come north to play at UC and would be operated on again within the week, he had never felt what he was feeling following the team’s victory over Missouri in the first round of the 2011 NCAA tournament. It was an excruciating pain, more than he could handle — “a blinding fear,” he recently called it.
A night of sleep did nothing, though one could hardly call it a sound night’s sleep. Wright woke up in his Washington D.C. hotel room in such pain that team doctors considered taking him to the hospital, before diagnosing him with a migraine.
As the team took the floor at the Verizon Center to practice in front of fans during the day between games — something teammates Yancy Gates and Sean Kilpatrick called a highlight of their experience — Wright stayed in the team’s locker room, lights off, a towel covering his eyes. It’s not that it helped the pain, but it limited it to something resembling repeated dagger strikes to the temple instead of a battle axe.
On game day, Wright couldn’t eat or drink, but even running on fumes and one bad tire, he finished with eight points, six assists, two steals and just two turnovers in 30 minutes of play in a 69-58 loss to Connecticut, the team that would go on to win its next four games and take the national championship.
“I was all messed up, but I felt like I owed it to my team to go out there and play,” Wright said a year later.
It wasn’t just the migraine — that was something Wright tried to keep from his teammates, something nobody who hasn’t suffered it can really understand — but also his surgically repaired left knee.
Wright missed his freshman season at UC after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament and had been hobbled much of the second half of the 2011 season. Two days after the loss to the Huskies, he underwent another surgery.
“Last year, we felt if his knee is a little better, it’s a different game, just because of how he can score the ball, he can play defense, pass — any night he can do any of those things,” Gates said. “That hurt us last year.”
In retrospect, it’s tough for anyone to look at that game against the Huskies and wonder what could have been — the Bearcats tied the game with 11:28 left on Wright’s two free throws, but Wright and the Bearcats just couldn’t hold on. They watched as the Huskies’ point guard, Kemba Walker, took over the game and then the tournament.
That’s the type of impact UC coach Mick Cronin believes Wright can have on his team. The NCAA tournament is won by guards, and a healthy Wright is the difference between a nice weekend and a championship.
“I’ve said it since the beginning of the season — he’s the key to our team,” Cronin said. “Keeping him fresh, keeping him healthy is the key.”
Wright has been migraine-free since last March and it’s his right knee, not the surgically repaired left, that has been a problem this season. Cronin’s kept his minutes down as much as he can, but when the game’s balance is in question, the ball is in the junior’s hands.
In the quarterfinals of the Big East Tournament against the 13th-ranked Georgetown Hoyas, Cronin backed up his words. The two teams were tied with less than 20 seconds to go in the second overtime, and instead of calling time out — like so many coaches who like to get on TV and show how smart they are by drawing up a play for the last seconds — Cronin let the game flow and from the sidelines told his point guard the game was his.
“Coach told me, go out there and make a play, you know what to do,” Wright said. “Don’t think about it, you know what to do, you’re a good player, do what you can do and make it happen.”
The 6-foot Wright blew past his defender and into the lane, right at 6-foot-10 Henry Sims and 6-8 Otto Porter — and before he got to them, he lofted a runner over the two, off the glass and in, leading the Bearcats to victory.
It was something he couldn’t imagine doing a year ago on one leg and in blinding pain.
“I just got to be prepared. You have to play every game like it’s your last, because it is. If you lose, you will be done,” Wright said. “You can’t take nothing for granted. ... Control what you can control, play hard, play with your heart.”
It’ll also help to play with two healthy knees and a clear mind.
CINCINNATI advanced to the Sweet 16 to play Ohio State at 9:45 p.m. Thursday, March 22 in Boston.