Just as he has turned the world of college basketball upside down, Stephen Curry, the 6’3” junior guard from little-known Davidson College averaging nearly 30 points per game, defied standard practice in his first visit to New York as a player in Tuesday night’s Jimmy V Classic.
On the doubleheader bill opposing Davidson was West Virginia, a Big East team coached by Bob Huggins, as well as Villanova and Texas, two huge programs from power conferences ranked in the top 12 of several major polls, were set to square off in the night cap.
But everyone in a packed Madison Square Garden came to see Stephen Curry and a college many could not have found on a map. (It’s in North Carolina, for the record). Professional stars Devin Harris and Vince Carter were on hand to check out a player LeBron James has come to watch multiple times.
The most astounding part of Curry’s visit to New York wasn’t his 27 points, 10 assists and four steals in a 68-65 Davidson win. It’s that for Curry, this was an off-night.
“It is amazing from where I got here when we played [Eastern] Michigan, there were like 10 people in the stands,” a composed Curry told reporters in his first New York press conference following the game. “It has really changed for us. I think the army is growing in our favor with each win we are getting.”
Curry habitually attributes shortcomings to himself and credits any accomplishment, even his own, to the team. Both his humility and his talent meant Curry had the crowd with him from the start Tuesday. The Garden gathering, even those dressed in Texas orange or Villanova blue, reacted to his every shot, pass or defensive play. There was legitimate surprise in the crowd when he missed a shot—given that even the best shooters miss as often as they make, such surprise is illustrative of both the already existing legend of Curry and the beauty of his release, which makes every shot look like it is destined to go in.
But Curry missed quite a few shots against a West Virginia defense that threw defenders between four and eight inches taller at him. Curry began the game 4-for-19, a shock given his field-goal percentage of better than 50 percent coming into the game.
“I say it was a matter of being at the Garden the first time and playing against a good Big East team and a good defensive scheme that Bob Huggins had,” Davidson coach Bob McKillop, a Queens native, said following the game.
But the greatness of Curry is that despite the shooting woes, he didn’t let it take away from other aspects of his game. Curry, though only 6-foot-3, often defends taller opponents—in part because his teammates are even more undersized relative to position, but also because he is able to make up for size with anticipation.
Witness a play at the 12:24 mark: 6-foot-2 guard Darryl Bryant drove to the basket, but Curry managed to reach up at precisely the right moment and force a jump ball. Not only is it a play that taller players routinely mistime and foul, but Curry, whom Davidson relies on like few teams count on their stars, might have shied away from the play to avoid further foul difficulties. Instead, he simply made the play, and kept his team ahead by three points.
But the most underrated aspect of Curry’s approach is his ability to pass. His court vision allowed him to make crosscourt, backdoor and more conventional connections to teammates that one would expect from a veteran NBA point guard. He had eight assists in the first half alone.
Here’s the thing: Tuesday night was Curry’s eighth game at the position. He was a shooting guard for his freshman and sophomore years, and switched because Davidson needed a point guard. Already, he’s put up three double-digit assist games, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 55-to-27—better than 2-to-1.
But with less than five minutes to go, Curry was just 5-for-22, 1-for-14 from three-point range, and West Virginia had pulled ahead, 56-53. That’s when Curry took over.
With sublime confidence, Curry brought the ball up the court, calmly managed the seeming optical illusion release over 6-foot-9 Devin Ebanks from beyond NBA distance three-point range, and tied the game at 56. Just one shot brought the crowd to his feet, and few sat down for the final five minutes.
After a pair of West Virginia free throws, Davidson went away from Curry in its next possession, and failed to score. That would be the last time Davidson did that. West Virginia made a series of great passes to put the 6-foot-7 Cam Thoroughman in position to score right next to the basket—but Curry stole the ball from Thoroughman before he had the chance. Curry promptly brought the ball up, found a seam in the defense from about 15 feet out, and tied the game—right over 6-foot-7 Wellington Smith.
Now the buzz in MSG grew louder. Huggins called timeout. West Virginia scored, and Curry missed for the final time on the night. West Virginia tried to reset quickly, but Curry managed to jump in a passing lane and deflect the ball out of bounds. Curry nearly blocked a shot by Bryant, but West Virginia pulled down another offensive rebound—a cartoonish 29 on the night—and eventually added a pair of free throws to pull ahead by four with 90 seconds to go.
Curry would not let his team lose. He managed to elude a double-team, took a pass, and made a three over a pair of defenders from beyond NBA three-point range. WVU by one. Back on defense, Curry stopped a taller WVU player’s momentum, anticipating his driving lane to the basket, then pulled down the rebound. No one else touched the ball as Curry headed up court. Curry found just enough space to take another three pointer, and buried it. MSG was Knicks-playoffs loud (remember Knicks-playoffs loud?). Davidson 64, West Virginia 62.
One traveling violation by West Virginia (forced by a double-team by Curry, who again anticipated and prevented the drive of a much taller offensive player), and foul shots by Curry (who received an in-bounds pass despite being triple-teamed), Davidson had won.
After it was all over, McKillop summarized how it felt to coach Stephen Curry.
“I certainly look at it as one of the great gifts in my life. Never in my 35 years of coaching have I seen that combination of greatness of player and greatness of person. I know how fortunate I am to be his coach.”