Pepe Sanchez said he never imagined it happening. Not the swarming crowd. Not the ankle injury. Not the struggle to get back to the locker room.
On the night of Nov. 20, 1998, Sanchez toed the free throw line at the Apollo with his seventh-ranked Owls trailing No. 5 Michigan State by one point with 0.5 seconds left.
The Owls had stormed back from a 10-point deficit with 3:36 remaining to suddenly have the chance to pull out a win that seemed impossible just minutes earlier.
“I remember getting fouled and thinking, ‘Wow, I got myself in a lot of trouble,'” Sanchez said. “‘I’m either going to be the hero or the villain.'”
He played the hero, sinking both his free throws to cap perhaps the greatest game ever played at the arena. A sold out crowd was on hand, while thousands more watched on ESPN.
“It had all the makings of a good game for the Apollo and the history of Temple basketball,” center Lamont Barnes said. “… It was a packed house from beginning to end. No one left, even when we were down.”
Upon making the second shot, Sanchez immediately fell backward, the pressure lifted from his shoulders.
Then came the scene he hadn’t anticipated.
The fans rushed the court in celebration. Somehow amid the melee, Sanchez sprained his ankle and missed the Owls’ next game.
“[John Chaney] was really pissed,” Sanchez said. “I’m not a very emotional player on the floor. When I shot it and it went in, it was such a relief that the game was over and I let myself fall down. I never imagined all those people would rush me.”
According the former coach, the Spartans called a time out just before Sanchez stepped to the line to make the junior guard dwell on the situation. Chaney offered Sanchez implicit directions during the break.
“I said, ‘After you make these two foul shots, I don’t want you on the floor,'” Chaney said. “This fool gets up there and makes the second one and falls backward. Someone steps on his foot and he can’t play the next game. I got to the locker room and wanted to choke him.”
Sanchez doesn’t recall such instructions.
“I think he’s lying,” he said. “I think his mind is playing tricks on him. I’m sure that’s what he wanted me to know. I know [nine] years later it looks better on video tape than rushing to the locker room. … I’m sure he’s still mad at this.”
John Kopp can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.