The calendar turns to mid-March and the wildest three weeks will follow, filled with heroes and heartache, the improbable and incredible, and maybe even a moment for all time.
Ron Hunter falling off his stool when Georgia State beat Baylor. UMBC pulling the upset to end all upsets against No. 1 seed Virginia. Christian Laettner delivering a shot that still has Kentucky fans cursing his name. In the rush that immediately follows the euphoric winners, the camera pans to the other side in real time: Players crying, staring ahead in disbelief, or falling to the floor in shock.
When the NCAA tournament begins again after a one-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, the moments we missed will come again in the same way they always do. Because there is no joy without pain in the tournament: Virginia, which won the national title a year after its historic loss, provides the perfect example.
Rarely, though, is the tournament’s triumph and heartbreak embodied in one single player the way they were with former Wofford guard Fletcher Magee: One Shining Moment and One Inconsolable Moment rolled into one fantastical, inconceivable weekend.
Two years ago, Magee went from setting the NCAA career record for 3-pointers during an opening-round win against Seton Hall, to missing all 12 of his 3-point attempts in a 62-56 loss to Kentucky 48 hours later.
In any other game, Magee’s performance against Kentucky might have been a footnote. But this was the NCAA tournament, in his last game as a senior. Still today, Magee has no explanation for what happened, and squaring his record-setting career with the worst game of his career has been a two-year journey filled with pain and perspective.
“It’s tough, and it’s something I have to live with, but when I think about my time at Wofford, it’s all joy and all happiness,” Magee said in a recent interview with ESPN. “That last game is really tough to swallow, but the people that will remember me from my last game aren’t the people who watched my whole career at Wofford and got to experience all the good things, too.”
When Magee arrived on campus in 2015 as an under-the-radar shooting guard from Orlando, Fla., nothing about him screamed, Future NCAA 3-point record holder! At 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds, he only had a handful of offers in high school. Plus, his shot was, well, unorthodox. Rather than practice methodical, repetitive shots from different spots beyond the arc, Magee did everything at game speed — running to a spot on the floor, stopping on a dime and shooting and, at times, twisting and contorting his body into strange angles. He would then rebound for himself and do it all again.
His rationale was simple: If he practiced any potential shots he would receive at game speed, it would make him a better shooter and much more difficult to guard. He studied J.J. Redick, his favorite player from the Orlando Magic, and the way Redick seemed to thrive on making the more difficult 3s. So he patterned his game after Redick and focused on becoming a better shooter, starting his junior year in high school.
“I said to myself, ‘If I want to play in the NBA or if I want to be as good as I can in basketball, I’m going to have to work on being a great shooter.’ Ever since then, I developed my shot,” Magee said.
The Wofford coaches saw that style early on. Though it would never go in a shooters’ manual, it worked for Magee and the team.
“He made a couple shots his first year in practice that looked like, ‘C’mon man, that’s an awful shot, and he made them,” said Mike Young, who coached Magee at Wofford before taking the Virginia Tech job in 2019. “It was not long into his freshman year that I said to my staff, ‘None of you will ever say another word to him about shot selection.’ We’re going to live with it, and he’s going to take some that are going to be bad, and they’re going to be bad misses, but he’s as unique as I’ve ever been around with the twisting and turning and running full tilt away from the basket and catching and turning in midair and making those shots.”
Jay McAuley discovered that before he arrived at Wofford as an assistant coach in 2017. He served as an assistant at Furman when Magee was a freshman and sophomore, and put together scouting reports on the forward. “It was a nightmare,” said McAuley, now the Wofford head coach. “You think you’re guarding him, and he contorts his body, and it’s unguardable the way he shoots and fades away and keeps his balance. But that goes back to his regimen and his commitment to his craft.”
Magee was in the gym before and after practice, sometimes shooting on his own well into the evening. Many times, Young would head home for the night, and the light would still be on in the gym, the sound of the ball bouncing away.
Beyond his own NBA dreams, the biggest goal was to lead Wofford to its first NCAA tournament win. Every incoming freshman class set the same goal. Every class before Magee had failed. If his team needed to rely on his 3-point shooting to make history, then that is what would happen.
The first 3-pointer of his career stays with him, and not because it was some cosmic sign of the future. Magee and his roommate, Matt Pegram, waited at the scorer’s table to enter their first game together in their season-opener against Missouri as true freshmen. He turned to Pegram and said, “This is our time.”
A few possessions after he checked in, Magee got the ball between the top of the key and the wing. He took his shot. When it went in, Magee felt immediate relief. The nerves melted away. He finished 5-of-9 from 3-point range, and also made a 3 against North Carolina in the second game.
“Seeing what SEC and ACC basketball was like gave me a lot of confidence going throughout the rest of my career,” Magee said. “If you can compete with them, it gives you something you can compare yourself to and really judge how good you are as a player. Doing well in those first two games allowed me to have the confidence that helped me make a lot more 3s down the road.”
His hard work rubbed off on teammates, as more players started to put in more time in the gym or film room. But the work went beyond what he did on the court. Magee also had a fastidious regimen for taking care of his body, bringing his own equipment and snacks on road trips.
“There would be days on the road, and everyone’s sleeping until the 9 a.m. wakeup call, and he’s in the hallway of the hotel with all these gadgets and stretching routines,” McAuley said. “He’s just a different guy, and those that are committed are the ones that are special.”
Fletcher Magee drops 27 points to lead Wofford to its first-ever win against an AP Top 25 team, 79-75 over North Carolina.
By the time Magee’s senior season rolled around, Wofford had developed a tight-knit team with great chemistry and an offensive game plan that generally revolved around their star guard. Still, the 3-point record never seemed like a possibility. Magee had 351 career 3s going into the season. The record was 504.
Magee would need to have a career season to even get close.
With that in mind, Magee felt pressure to perform right away. Following an 0-for-9 performance from long range against Kansas in the ninth game of the season — an outing that went unnoticed in the national media — Young pulled Magee aside.
“Take a deep breath,” Young told him. “We have a big stretch ahead of us, and you’re going to do great.”
After that talk, something changed.
“I was putting too much pressure on myself, not really for the record but as far as wanting to do well so badly and wanting to get drafted. I was thinking about that too much and not focusing on trying to do the best I can do every single day for my team,” Magee recalls. “[After my conversation with Coach Young], I started to play a lot better and the records and accomplishments started to come.”
Magee’s shots started to fall at a ridiculous rate. It became routine to see him make five 3s in a game, sometimes seven and, on occasion, eight. Wofford started rolling, too. In January 2019, Magee broke Steph Curry’s conference 3-point record of 414 the NBA Star set when he was with Davidson in 2009. Magee, ever the competitor, noted wryly, “It only took Steph three years to do it.”
In February, Magee passed Redick for second on the NCAA career list. He kept making 3s and Wofford kept winning, closing out an undefeated season in league play with a Southern Conference tournament victory. Wofford was 29-4 and ranked in the Top 25 when it made the NCAA tournament as a No. 7 seed. They were headed to Jacksonville, Fla.
Magee grew up in Orlando, a two-hour drive from Jacksonville, so the first-round matchup against Seton Hall became a default home game for Wofford. The Magee family, plus friends, neighbors and former coaches, filled the stands, nearly 100 in all. His parents, mother Arden and father Jerry Magee, had seats at half court, about halfway up the lower bowl. They carried their “Magee for 3” signs and wore their usual jerseys and Terrier stickers on their cheeks.
The record came early in the second half. Storm Murphy passed Magee the ball, and the player guarding him went for the steal. Magee spun around him, then let the shot go. The fans raised their arms in anticipation of history. Magee knew it when the crowd roared and kept cheering as he went back on defense. He finished 7-of-12 in the 84-68 win, Wofford’s first at the NCAA tournament. In the locker room afterward, Magee got a game ball as the team celebrated.
“He was in the zone, couldn’t miss,” McAuley said. “The whole energy of the arena, you could feel it — the shot was going up whenever he touched it and it didn’t matter what defense was on him. He was on a different planet that day.”
Work remained, though, as powerhouse Kentucky awaited in the next round. Magee and his teammates wanted more than an opening-round win. They believed they could take down the Wildcats.
The morning of the game, Wofford had the option of a 7:30 a.m. shootaround. Young left it up to the players to decide. Magee went with a few teammates and went through his normal routine: 15 mid-range jumpers, 25 spot-up 3s, transition 3s, off the screen moving right, off the screen moving left, some dribble 3s and free throws.
Nothing felt out of the ordinary during pregame warmups, either. But something felt strange when the game started. “I had a couple looks that were pretty tough shots, but shots I usually make and they felt off,” Magee said. “I just kept telling myself, ‘Stick with it, they’re going to start falling.'”
He stuck with it, but he kept missing his 3-point attempts. Up in the stands, his father got up and started to walk around the arena as a way to distract himself. His mother got a pit in her stomach. “It was agony,” Arden Magee said.
What made it all the more agonizing was how close the game was: five minutes into the second half, the game was tied. Magee attempted a 3 with Wofford down one. He missed again. Down four with 10 minutes to go, another missed 3. Each miss felt like the basketball gods playing a heartless joke. Every turn in the Wofford season felt so improbable in such a good way — an undefeated league record, an NCAA career record, a first NCAA tournament win. But what unfolded against Kentucky was just the opposite, leaving so many to wonder, “How does the guy who made 509 3-pointers in his career fail to land one now?”
“He had a shot in the second half right across from our bench,” Young said. “It was wide open and he missed it, and it was like, ‘Wow, he never ever misses that shot.’ It’s the game, it’s unforgiving and it’s harsh. It wasn’t a lack of preparation, it was nothing other than the game of basketball and how cruel it can be on a given day.”
“In the second half when he got a couple clean looks and it didn’t go in you could hear the crowd exhale and moan and groan a little bit,” McAuley said. “That stuff can start creeping in on you a little bit, but Fletcher, he stays in the moment — he’s got a next shot mentality.”
Especially since Wofford was still in the game. Young never deviated from their offensive scheme, and kept running plays for Magee. “I knew he was having a hard day, but I knew the next one was going in. I was going to ride him to the bitter end, and I would do the same thing today without blinking an eye.”
Nobody in the huddle talked to Magee about what was happening. “One of the worst things you can do is draw attention to it, get him in his head,” Pegram said. “He cares and he knows he’s missed shots, so there was no speech like what are we doing? You’ve got to start making shots. Nothing like that. There was never a moment when we thought we need to go in a different direction and find somebody else to shoot. Until the clock hit 0, I was convinced he would find a way to get a shot for us.”
Up in the stands, his parents kept the faith: “We weren’t saying there’s another one, now we’re up to 0-for-8 or 0-for-9 because the game was so gripping and so competitive. We just knew the next one was going to go in and we were like, ‘All right this is setting it up for him to hit the game winner,'” Jerry said. “That was the mentality because we had seen it so many times.”
Fletcher Magee told himself the same thing.
The game set up exactly that way. Down 58-54 with 1:26 remaining, Magee spotted up for a 3.
Down four with 11 seconds left, Magee tried one final time from 3.
He missed for the 12th time. Wofford lost 62-56. Magee finished with eight points, and a most unwanted NCAA tournament record – the most 3-point attempts without a make in a game. Afterward, Kentucky coach John Calipari praised the job Tyler Herro did on Magee while noting, “If they hit a normal amount of 3s, they probably beat us.”
Magee faced questions about the worst game of his career immediately after stepping off the court, first at the formal postgame press conference and again inside a solemn locker room with a ring of reporters standing around him. Magee was still in a fog, shocked over what happened. He called his performance horrible, and had no explanation for it, but answered with patience and grace, proving once again he was a leader in both good times and bad.
Two years later, he still accepts the blame and still believes Wofford would have won had he made a few 3s.
“When you fail, or when there’s adversity or a letdown, the best way to get over it isn’t to run from it and act like it didn’t happen,” Magee recently told ESPN. “I had to be honest, and it was hard because it was so easy to see that the result could have been different if I would have shot the ball better. But I had to take responsibility in front of my teammates and coaches.
“It’s something I still can’t really explain, and it’s really tough that I shot that badly in such a big game when the stakes were really high. It eats me alive knowing we could have gone to the Sweet Sixteen if I had shot the ball better.”
The sting afterward stayed with him for months. Family and friends reminded him one game did not change anything about him or his career; they told him no one blamed him and he was being too hard on himself.
“Everyone wants to forget we probably wouldn’t have won that first game if he hadn’t made as many shots as he did,” Pegram said. “That’s the way I look at it. He gave our school a magical moment.”
Young added, “That was a tough day, but it will never in a million years cloud my memory of what he accomplished and what his teammates accomplished and what he did for Wofford and Spartanburg and the upstate of South Carolina.”
Magee said he has accepted it and moved on. He is currently overseas with Studentski Centar Podgorica in Montenegro and hopes to still make it to the NBA. His Wofford ties remains strong, and not because he holds a few records. He is the epitome of hard work, determination, doggedness and leadership, and McAuley relies on him when he needs to, most recently via video on senior night.
“He’s what I want our players to be about here, and that’s the biggest compliment I can give to a player,” McAuley said.
Magee still thinks of that nagging “what if” question every once in a while, but perhaps most especially now that the NCAA tournament is here again.
“I would rather beat Seton Hall and have that opportunity against Kentucky and fail than to just never be in that spot,” Magee said. “Looking back at the NCAA tournament, there are so many more positives, it’s not too hard to get caught up in that last one.”