Almost famous: Bray soaks in first Big Dance
CMH graduate part of near-upset in NCAA Tournament
It was one of countless moments that caused outbursts in sports bars and living rooms across America on Thursday when Kentucky's Brandon Knight surged down the right side of the lane and tossed in a layup - his only two points of the game - with 2 seconds left to give his team a thrilling 59-57 win over Princeton in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Unfortunately for T.J. Bray, the play meant he would be joining those masses watching March Madness on TV.
Just three days shy of the one-year anniversary when Bray hoisted the Mr. Basketball trophy and led his Catholic Memorial basketball team to the Division 2 state title in Madison, the two-time Classic 8 Conference Player of the Year was on the perimeter for Princeton, momentarily harassing Knight before the UK star cut through the Tigers' zone.
"It was definitely disappointing," Bray said. "We were up five with 13 minutes left, and they went up five with a couple minutes left and we battled back and tied the game. We've been in tons of games like that - we were 4-0 in overtime games this year, and it always felt like we could really hang, and it just didn't end up working out that way."
The Tigers narrowly missed becoming one of the instant darlings of the NCAA Tournament, a 13 seed coming within inches of knocking off a fourth seed and Southeast Conference champion. Bray, who played 6 minutes in the game off the bench, played a contributing role for Princeton in his freshman year at the prestigious Ivy League institution.
"It's far surpassed expectations what I expected coming in," Bray said. "We had an unbelievable time together. It was a great experience being with those guys battling all the way until the end."
Madness of March
The Princeton whirlwind for Bray began before the NCAA Tournament. National attention drifted to the Ivy League when Harvard topped the Tigers early in March, pulling the teams even in the loss column of the regular-season standings. Harvard, which had not appeared in the NCAA Tournament since 1946, had an edge to getting the league's automatic berth in the tournament - which is the lone conference giving said berth to the regular-season champion and not the winner of a postseason conference tournament.
Bray saw 17 minutes when Princeton rallied to top Penn in the regular-season finale March 8, setting up a rare one-game playoff in New Haven, Conn. March 12 against Harvard to determine the NCAA berth.
"Harvard had gotten a lot of attention all year with it being the first time for them to tie for the Ivy League title, but it was special for us too because none of our guys had ever won one," Bray said.
The game's outcome became a widely-circulated highlight. After an inbound with 2.8 seconds left, Douglas Davis leaned in for a jumper at the buzzer to give the Tigers a 63-62 victory and ignite a jubilant celebration. Bray played 10 minutes in the de facto conference championship game.
"It felt like a movie, where the ball is in the air forever and you're watching it, waiting for it to come down, then seeing it swish through the net," Bray said.
Bray said he suspected Princeton would receive a 13 seed when his squad sat down to watch the Selection Sunday special on CBS.
"I thought Kentucky was going to be seeded a little higher coming off the SEC tournament win," Bray said. "We drew them, but we felt like we could compete with anyone. We found out we were playing Kentucky, and our coach left immediately Sunday to watch film and get a scouting report ready. We had a Monday practice, and Tuesday we took off for Tampa and had a shoot-around Wednesday and Thursday."
The stage was a big one, but the level of opponent was nothing new. Princeton faced off with Duke at an early-season tournament.
"We played Duke pretty tough for one half, so we knew we had guys that could do this," Bray said. "We had been in this position before, and we know we can compete with these types of teams. When the second half started and we built a little lead, all of us were expecting to win."
Bray was part of the defensive effort that frustrated Knight, a freshman who averaged 17 points per game but hadn't hit a basket until the final seconds. Knight would go on to score 30 points in a second-round win over West Virginia.
There's no rest for Bray, as he was back in class Monday. He said the academic experience has been a challenge, but a good one.
"You have to kind of keep in a routine, but it's definitely manageable," Bray said. "You have to really focus on what you're doing. You sit down for two hours and have to only focus on homework during that time, because otherwise it'll catch up to you."
Bray averaged only 1.5 points and 1.7 rebounds per game this year but played in all 32 contests, averaging more than 10 minutes per game.
"I'm definitely excited to work on my game this summer, get better and hopefully increase my role on the team," he said.
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