PITTSBURGH -- Admit it. You swore Brandin Knight was done the moment he crumpled to the Madison Square Garden floor last Saturday, seized with pain.
You whined over Ben Howland's decision to stick Knight back in for that desperation heave against the Huskies, and then saw through Howland's selection committee scam -- "doctor's clearance," riiigghht. You carefully scratched out Pitt on your bracket. You knew, just knew in your marrow that 20 would be the magic number not for the Panthers, but for the 19-win-streaking Blue Devils (the, um, other ones).
And you, silly, skeptical you -- you were wrong.
Howland said flatly that Knight's leg would have to be severed clean off the bone before he'd even consider sitting out. "I'm going to play," Brandin promised over and over all week. But no one seemed to believe him, no matter how many mindnumbing times he repeated himself.
Maybe he should've just rolled tape from his Big East co-player of the year highlight reel. All season, Knight shrugged off pain. In one stretch in January, BK caught only five practices but played six games, averaging 38 minutes a contest, his right leg hermetically sealed in bandages, tape and a rubber sleeve the entire time.
Tweaked right quad? Sore pinky? Puh-leez. Knight actually licked his lips at tip-off, and on cue, ball floated right to him.
But Central Connecticut State was not about to fall in line with Pitt's plan to bury them early, just so BK could grab some bench time. And Pitt seemed a bit out of sorts in the opening minutes. Knight hung back, not cutting or gunning down the lanes, even tripping on a defensive switch.
Then with the flat affect of a computer, Knight kicked into gear. Knight leapt for rebounds, barreled headfirst into traffic and crashed the floor after loose balls. He fought through screens, chasing down Devils, picking rocks out of the air and thrusting his hands in all directions, taped-up pinky be damned.
Meanwhile, his friends and family watched Knight make good on his word. BK's crew -- a.k.a. the "Knight Court" -- presided over several rows in the Pitt student section, their raucous cheering enough to rankle a cranky security guard, who threatened to eject them. "Everybody's hearts stopped when he went down against UConn," said Rome Hanton. "But we knew he'd be ready."
"Brandin kept saying he'd play, so I had to believe him," said his mom, Brenda, who sat a couple rows in front of the Knight Court, wearing her son's No. 20 over a white blouse. "He looks good. He's not playing noticeably injured. I just hope he keeps it up, and we're the victor."
She rose to cheer the dunk stylings of Chevon Troutman as CCSU called time and Brandin literally skipped to the bench. Knight's dad, Melvin, also nodded his approval. "I had a couple of those types of injuries when I was playing," said Mel, a former star for Seton Hall. "So I was a little concerned. But the heart attacks are more Mom's job."
Mom probably had a small fit when her son thudded hard to the floor with 2:55 to go, his legs cut out from under by Blue Devil Ron Robinson. Kneeling on the floor, Knight held his head in his hands and wincing only long enough to hop up and shoot his free throws.
A couple minutes later, Julius Page uncorked a monstrous windmill, and a small smile played upon the corners of BK's mouth as Mellon Arena went shrill with whistles and a collective, "YAH!!!!!!!"
Then, and only then did Knight finally sit. His line? 17 points, 9 dimes, 5 steals.
And 39 minutes played.
At the press conference, though he had walked off the court with a slight limp, Knight looked more like he'd been in class all day: rested, unruffled and oh-so bored. He stared coldly at the media types, as if he thought people still didn't get it. And when the inevitable L word came up -- How'd the leg feel? What percentage were you? -- Brandin glared straight ahead, as if to say, Uh, did you watch the game?
"The leg is fine," Knight said curtly. "The answer's going to be the same: It's fine. So please: No more questions about the leg."
The next question for him came with an apologetic disclaimer. "Brandin, this really isn't a question about your leg, but you played 39 minutes," said the reporter. "Were you trying to prove something?"
"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," said BK, somewhat grateful for the non-leg question. "I've been dreaming about playing in the tournament since I got here.
Knight's also been dreaming of the chance to stare down JWill & Co.
"He won't admit it, but he really believes he's right up there with JWill," said Matt Cohen, the founder of the Oakland Zoo, Pitt's would-be Cameron Crazies. "I keep telling him, 'Bring on Duke!'"
So keep on doubting Brandin Knight. He just might gut out a way to a showdown with the Blue Devils. The, um, other ones.
Ann Marie Cruz is a senior reporter at ESPN The Magazine. Email Cruz at firstname.lastname@example.org