The St. Francis of Pennsylvania basketball team had the chance to accomplish a rare feat Saturday afternoon against Sacred Heart. They had a chance to end their season with a win.
Of course, the reality of the situation is that even if their journey would technically end in a W on the final ledger, the Red Flash season was lost before they showed up at the Pitt Center for the season finale. Although technically still alive for the postseason then, it was probably gone prior to their getting bludgeoned to a pulp by Quinnipiac.
Fittingly, St. Francis traded in the red uniforms they wore Thursday down the scenic Merritt Parkway in Hamden and donned the funereal black for the services.
As the SFPA lineup was announced, the silly tradition of a bench player giving his secret handshake to the starter continues, only it was a slow-motion, "do we have to do this?" version that included no smiles or anyone leaving their feet for chest bumps.
I tried to watch coach Don Friday and his bench closely as the game went on, admittedly with some pity. First of all, there wasn't much of a bench. I counted only three players actually in uniform, although it somehow magically increased to four at some point, just like Coach Dale's bench in Hoosiers seemed to mysteriously grow as they made their run through the tournament.
We know this game will hurt you. And we know it ends in a loss. But that collective hurt of losing repeatedly takes a toll on struggling teams as December bleeds into January, which slowly morphs into February. Eventually, sometimes, you just become numb and accept your fate. It's not a great place to be, but there's only so much fight in even the toughest of us before it becomes futile and we just give in.
At least most of us do.
My sympathy for Coach Friday is twofold. In the Red Flash season opener, they nearly took down VCU - on the night a Final Four banner was put in the rafters in Richmond (how would that loss look on their resume right about now?) - behind 26 points from junior guard Umar Shannon, their leading scorer last season. Sadly, that would be the last action Shannon would see in 2011-12, as he fell victim to the those dreaded three letters: A, C, and L.
Still, the Red Flash started NEC play 2-0 in December. But they slowly but surely faded, and with only eight of 12 NEC teams advancing to the tournament, they were indeed a dead team walking Saturday afternoon.
The second part of my empathy for Friday is that short of possibly the service academies, is there a tougher place to recruit in Division I men's college basketball than St. Francis? With sincere apologies to the nice people there, Loretto, Penn. (population 1,200) pretty much defines "off the beaten path." Well off.
Friday tried to keep the energy up Saturday with the tried and true walk down the bench, clap your hands and say "Let's go!" method, but his energy was met with dirty looks and snickers by his intended audience. Somehow, SFPA held Sacred Heart scoreless for the first seven minutes went up 9-0 and led for most of the first half.
When the Pioneers finally grabbed the lead late in the first half, something happened on the bench that drew Friday's ire and he screamed at what was left of his reserves. He got a collective roll of the eyes back.
Eventually, possible NEC Player of the Year Shane Gibson stopped feeling sorry for the zombie Red Flash with a barrage of three-pointers. After scoring just six minutes before the intermission, Gibson had 22 after, some of them ranking pretty high on the degree of difficulty scale. In the end, it was a 72-57 win which was pretty meaningless for Sacred Heart; they were locked into the No. 8 seed and will go to regular season champ Long Island in the NEC quarterfinals Thursday.
In covering the NEC this season, I've developed a pretty large affinity for it, you just have experiences that you don't get in other conferences. There were two examples in this game.
In addition to Friday, I watched the Red Flash's Jon Taylor, who was the only active senior. In all likelihood, this was to be the last time he was to suit up in a competitive basketball game, something I'm sure he had done hundreds, possibly thousands, of times in his life. He came to St. Francis from Montgomery College-Germantown and therefore only played two years.
With an extended halftime, I had ample opportunity to hit the facilities, which was a decent walk from the gym. Bathroom conversations at urinals can be among the most awkward our society has, but as I quickly glanced up, I saw the tall dude next to me had a black warm-up shirt on with "42" on the back.
It was Taylor.
"Last game, huh?," I said uncomfortably.
"Yeah, kind of sucks."
As we washed our hands and Taylor bolted (most likely wondering how this weirdo know who the hell he was) to play his last 20 minutes ever, I laughed and said to no one in particular, "I love this conference."
Things got better as I walked back to my seat and realized that doing the color for the MSG Plus broadcast was the immortal Tim Capstraw, whom Kyle had written about just two days prior. Now I'm sure in other places just walking over and sitting behind the broadcast team is frowned upon and in some venues people may even pay extra - so I'm told - to sit in the front row at center court.
But this is the NEC, people. I actually ended up on the broadcast (I need to get a Bally), as I got a text from my mom, "You're on TV".
"That's you in the Yankees hat behind the announcers, right?"
"Yes, why are you watching this game?"
"You told me you were going to that game. Nothing else is on. And Tim Capstraw is a legend."
OK, I made up part of that last statement. Possibly the last sentence.
With the game getting out of hand late, Friday sent Taylor to the scorer's table to check in with 2:30 to go. Only the refs wanted to get out of there almost as badly as St. Francis did, and - as it didn't matter much anyway - didn't bother to call any fouls.
So Taylor sat. And waited. And waited.
Finally, with 58 seconds left, Friday got a time out so Taylor could get on the court. He got one last look at the basket, took only his fourth three-point attempt of the season, and watched it carom off the back rim. The Pioneers ran out the clock, the crowd gave them a standing ovation, and Taylor's basketball career was over.
Just as it will be for so many others in the coming fortnight.
Anyway, with the epic Jimmy Patsos fail still fresh in my mind, I wasn't going to make the same mistake twice. Like good players and teams, I try to fight through the fatigue (and it's there) and get better and sharper as we had toward March.
When Capstraw went off the air, I introduced myself as a writer for The Mid-Majority.
"Kyle Whelliston's website."
"Oh, yeah, how's he doing? He's a great guy."
"He wrote something about you just a few days ago. It's really good."
"I saw him Tweet about it, but I didn't read it yet. I'll have to. Hey, tell Kyle I said hi, will you?"
at SACRED HEART 72, SAINT FRANCIS (PA) 57 02/25/2012
SAINT FRANCIS (PA) 6-23 (5-13) -- M. Teague 5-12 6-7 16; S. Whyatt 0-3 2-2 2; S. Eatherton 4-11 1-2 9; A. Ervin 8-10 0-0 20; K. Ritter 2-4 0-0 4; E. Brown 4-5 3-3 11; O. Jackson 2-4 1-2 5; J. Taylor 1-5 2-4 4; S. Stanley 0-1 2-2 2; T. Peters 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 21-43 11-15 57. SACRED HEART 14-17 (8-10) -- S. Gibson 10-17 4-4 28; E. Kelley 3-7 1-2 7; S. Dulaire 5-5 7-7 17; P. Gaetano 1-3 0-0 3; J. Swidowski 6-10 0-0 13; N. Greenbacker 2-5 0-0 4; L. Montes 0-2 0-0 0; C. Evans 0-3 0-0 0; S. Glowiak 0-2 0-0 0; F. Akinpetide 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 27-55 12-13 72.
Three-point goals: SFPA 4-11 (A. Ervin 4-6; J. Taylor 0-1; S. Whyatt 0-2; O. Jackson 0-2), SH 6-14 (S. Gibson 4-6; E. Kelley 0-2; J. Swidowski 1-1; S. Glowiak 0-2; P. Gaetano 1-3); Rebounds: SFPA 17 (E. Brown 5), SH 28 (S. Dulaire 6); Assists: SFPA 10 (E. Brown 3), SH 14 (S. Gibson 3); Total Fouls -- SFPA 14, SH 12; Fouled Out: SFPA-None; SH-None.