Going into Asheville, I had a bad feeling that this would be the night. This would be the night High Point would lose, and that magical chance would be gone. A loss tonight, and there would be no national championship. For that matter, there would be no NCAA Tournament. Nor would there be a ghost bracket tournament, which would be consolation for a team that in ten years of Division I basketball has never reached the postseason. While Winthrop got lucky with the tiebreaker, High Point did not. High Point would have to face the regular season champion on its homecourt in Asheville, needing a win to keep going. At least they did not lose in High Point on Monday, beating Gardner-Webb. If they had, I probably would have stayed home and watched South Carolina take another loss before joining up with the tournaments later. But now I could see High Point one last time. The Panthers had Shay Shine, who last season at home against the Bulldogs made a dunk at the end of the first half that made him a YouTube legend. HPU also had Nick Barbour, who on Senior Day passed AZ Reid for most career points by a Panther at the Division I level. But lose this game, and you will never have those players again.
After the previous session ended, I wanted to stay parked where I was. I somehow managed like my first trip here avoided paying the $5 parking fee, which is something I expect to pay above the Red Line but not here. So I had to stay parked where I was, and took a walk around the UNC Asheville campus. I was expecting a beautiful mountain place, as the area near the athletic facilities is pretty nice. But UNCA seems to be the opposite of HPU's campus in that the athletic complex area looks pretty good but the rest of the campus seemed kind of bland. During Fall foliage it would probably look pretty nice, but not as much in late February. The park at the edge of campus had a few walking paths and a drum circle area, but otherwise seemed to be a gathering place for dead leaves. The campus did not seem to be that energetic like I had pictured it. I have a cousin who goes to school here, and from what I have picked up from her UNCA students go hang out mostly in the downtown area. So I will get to see that later this weekend for the SoCon Tourney.
But I headed back towards Kimmel Arena soon enough. I did not want to keep going around campus, as the whole time I was worried I might run into my cousin there, which would have been extremely awkward. So I walked back, passing the UNCA Student Union Building on the way back. I saw plenty of signs promoting SGA elections, but none promoting the game. Even at the commuter two-year school I have helped out with, they usually try to make an effort to promote big games on campus. But this resonates with what my cousin has said about how much UNCA cares about sports.
I got back into Kimmel Arena and into my seat in the HPU section. I was on the fourth row towards the end of the court on the sideline. We had our band taking up part of the UNCA student section, which made the UNCA student section look fuller than it would have been otherwise. It appeared to be mostly the same groups of students who were here the last time I was. Behind our band was a small section of our students. The presence of the band was better than the last time we traveled to Asheville for the tournament back in 2008.
My hope was that we could win and hold off death for a little bit. But thinking more realistically, I just wanted a good game, unlike when we lost by 20 points here a month before. I would like to see Shine and Barbour play well and go down fighting like AZ did at the end of his career at HPU. And initially, the offense played well. HPU got some big shots from Shine and scored in transition, leading at various points early. I began to hope that we might still have a chance, and briefly glanced at where I could possibly get a cheap hotel locally on my Android in case we won and had another game the next day. But I knew it would be foolish to think this solid play would last on the road. HPU did slaughter #3 Campbell at home and won on the road against #2 Coastal recently. But we saw this afternoon how that turned out for those teams. And UNC Asheville had too many options. In addition to the regular stars in J.P. Primm and Matt Dickey, Chris Stephenson and Jeremy Atkinson stepped up with big games as well. When Corey Law was fouled with six seconds left in the half and down seven, I hoped it could be two possessions at halftime. But I had a feeling he would miss the front end and UNCA would get a basket. And that is what happened. When you know that is coming, you know death is near.
And it would continue to get out of hand in the second half. For most of the second half, UNCA would completely dominate and not let High Point back in the game. It was really painful to watch, knowing that your team's season was ending with a loss as it always will happen. High Point would go on to lose 86-61, which if I am not mistaken might be the most lopsided defeat I have seen the Panthers lose by in men's basketball. I did see a 94-69 loss to another UNC campus in Chapel Hill five years ago, but that was a bit different. That was a guarantee game against a team that with mostly the same players went on to win a national championship two years later. This was a season-ending loss to a school with a much smaller athletic budget than even us.
So like with any death, I went through the stages of grief. I never really felt denial ever though. I know many sports fans would have denial, however. An optimistic fan when HPU fell behind by close to 20 would likely say, "Just wait for Nick to get on a run and shoot lights out!" That however was obviously not going to happen. I tweeted when things were going well midway through the first half that we would stay in the game until UNCA got their 20-0 run. It was not quite 20-0, but it was close. I know from having watched this team they usually lose games through an awful stretch. And I knew that returning that stretch like HPU just about did at home against the Bulldogs was unlikely in this situation on the road, so I definitely was not in denial.
But there would be a lot of the second stage, which is anger. I knew that while AZ's teams always got beat before the conference final, AZ himself would never end his career by going 2-for-17, which is what Nick Barbour would do. But that's the problem with overreliance on guards, some nights that cannot miss like Barbour had against Campbell or nights like tonight where he could not make many shots. And at the same time, I did not want to see Nick go out playing like this. But for your season to die, something like that must happen. The main source of my anger was not at any of the players or coaches, but the HPU administration for firing Bart Lundy three years ago. If Lundy had stayed to manage the players he recruited around Barbour, things might have gone better. But instead Cherry was brought in and pressured to win, so he picked up juco transfers, a strategy that hurt Lundy's second season in 2005 which also started with promise under senior Danny Gathings. Shay Shine has worked out, but Cherry has never gotten the big man needed to develop a consistent offensive attack. And I wish that considering these circumstances, Cherry would focus on a more Winthrop-like defensive style, rather than trying to win based on the offensive effort of Barbour and Shine. What is more frustrating is that Cherry will have to bring in a mostly new team next year, which could lead to more losing. My hope is that we can rebuild the right way this time, and not have our administration try to meddle in the efforts of Cherry as HPU and most of the conference looks to get back on track.
The third stage is bargaining, which I tried to all day by hoping certain other teams would win their games. With Campbell and Coastal losing earlier, my hopes were that my favorite team left in Charleston Southern could generate some magic later on. I also hoped that once UNCA put in their bench, we could generate a futile comeback and lose by around 15 points instead of 25 (it could have easily been 30 however). The next stage is depression, which was how I spent the last several minutes. Aside from making a few bitter tweets as the game ended, I mostly sat depressed that another team of mine was going to lose and did not say much of anything. This season has been fun having been to more games than ever before, but unfortunately has also had more losing than ever before.
And then we accept the death of the season. I knew that there would still be more basketball left, basketball where I cared less about who won. And there could have been worse ways to lose. We could have lost by 45 points on national television, which is what High Point did in 2004 at Liberty. Even worse, we could have lost on a miracle buzzer-beater, or because of a horrendous officiating call like in a regular season game at Coastal Carolina in 2008. I was not at that game, but I heard that Coach Lundy had to be restrained after the refs ruled at the last second that HPU should not be shooting free throws for the win when the scorers' table determined that the buzzer should have sounded before the foul. We did not end our season that way thankfully. And this was just a game. Fortunately our personal lives do not work like basketball. We do not have to kill one another for the resources to continue to survive. That would really be awful. That's what basketball is like, and that is our entertainment.
The funny thing about the death of the season is that it does not usually come in front of our own fans most of the time. Only a few hundred HPU fans were in attendance, as opposed to well over a thousand for most games at the Millis Center. It was even worse for Coastal and Campbell in the afternoon, playing in front of fewer than 500 fans total. Those schools lost their most important game of the season in one of their lowest attended games of the season. Even for the few teams who get eliminated at home have fewer of their season ticket holders. Matt Cayuela did not get a seat for Coastal's final loss at home to UNCA last year, since a quarter of the arena had to go to the opposing school. And if you win your conference tournament, your death comes in the NCAA Tournament, which is a completely unique atmosphere where you are likely sent far away with very few of your fans. Schools try to schedule a more romantic setting for their finality with Senior Day, usually the last home game (occasionally moved to the last weekend home game). But those seniors will not end their careers on Senior Day. They will still continue to fight for that hope of a national title, and lose it where fewer of their fans can attend. Senior Day can be a fun finality, but the actual finality is almost never fun.
But that is life is in Our Game. I could move on, and look forward to seeing another game tonight even with my team gone.
at NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 86, HIGH POINT 61 02/29/2012
HIGH POINT 13-18 (8-10) -- C. Hinkle 3-10 2-2 9; N. Barbour 2-17 2-2 7; S. Shine 7-15 7-8 22; C. Law 3-6 2-4 8; D. Wallace 4-8 1-2 12; B. Mikulic 0-1 0-0 0; J. Simms 1-1 0-0 2; J. Cheek 3-5 0-0 7; T. Elliott 0-0 0-0 0; X. Martin 0-0 0-1 0; Q. Drye 0-0 0-0 0; T. Duncan 1-1 0-0 2; L. Harris 0-1 1-2 1. Totals 21-55 13-19 61. NORTH CAROLINA-ASHEVILLE 22-9 (16-2) -- J. Atkinson 4-8 7-9 16; J. Primm 3-8 7-8 15; M. Dickey 2-8 5-6 11; C. Stephenson 7-11 4-5 18; J. Lane 4-9 5-8 13; Q. Jackson 2-2 1-4 5; T. Meyer 0-2 0-0 0; K. Hornsby 1-2 0-1 2; C. Littlejohn 1-2 0-0 2; J. Harn 1-1 0-0 2; J. Nwannunu 0-0 0-0 0; M. Davis 0-0 0-0 0; C. Pal 0-0 0-0 0; J. Roberts 0-0 0-0 0; J. Seligson 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 26-54 29-41 86.
Three-point goals: HP 6-24 (N. Barbour 1-8; J. Cheek 1-3; S. Shine 1-7; D. Wallace 3-5; B. Mikulic 0-1), UNCA 5-20 (C. Stephenson 0-1; J. Primm 2-6; M. Dickey 2-5; J. Lane 0-3; T. Meyer 0-2; J. Atkinson 1-2; K. Hornsby 0-1); Rebounds: HP 28 (C. Law 8), UNCA 36 (J. Atkinson 8); Assists: HP 7 (J. Simms 3), UNCA 16 (J. Primm 6); Total Fouls -- HP 28, UNCA 18; Fouled Out: HP-None; UNCA-None.