When I last left Hartford coach John Gallagher, he was deep in thought, trying to figure out how to get his team better as the season turned toward the all-important homestretch. When I first met Gallagher this season, back in December, he was the sympathetic young leader of one of the last winless Division I teams in the country.
It was an interesting test case, really. Gallagher, one of the youngest head coaches in the country, came to Hartford as the prototypical young gym rat, working his way quickly up the ladder with hard work and energy, and telling anyone who would listen his team would show that determination on the court every night.
But there might not be a better antidote to energy and enthusiasm than losing, and doing it consistently. Gallagher did not have the same energy this season as last; some of that is just maturity, as it seems there are plenty of misplaced actions and movement on the sidelines with a lot of young coaches.
Steve Donahue, who knows a little about Mid-Majority success (although his time at Boston College has been a mighty struggle thus far), worked with a young Gallagher and served a warning to ESPN when Gallagher was hired nearly two years ago.
"The best part about John is his incredible enthusiasm and excitement, but that can backfire if you're not careful," Donahue said. "You have to keep it simple and do one thing at a time. You can't accomplish 8,000 things in a day. You have to build things slowly because, if you look at the guys who took the shortcuts, most of them don't last."
Gallagher's Hawks went 11-20 in his first year (it was Hartford's best record since 2007-08), and with the benefit of the conference tournament on his home floor, he was only a few minutes from the America East final before falling to Boston University.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing for Gallagher in his second season was the lack of support among his fans. Now we don't expect Hartford to draw like Wichita State or Dayton, but my first two games at Chase Family Arena were among the least attended games I went to all season. There were excuses for each, but still, it didn't exactly feel like a program on the rise.
Gallagher has talked about his siblings being a doctor, lawyer, and college professor, respectively, and I wonder if when he talks to them after losses, likely bordering on distraught, he gets the same questions I get after making lengthy trips to games with no apparent rooting interest.
"Why do you do that to yourself? Is it really worth it?"
And you can try to give an explanation that is completely rational to you, and makes perfect sense to those in the same line of work, but all you get back is a puzzled look from "outsiders," and a clearly (if not always intentional) condescending statement.
"Good for you, then. You keep chasing that dream."
To Gallagher's credit, his team didn't quit at 0-13. They went 7-9 in America East for the second straight year. With the tournament at home, his team again, in front of a near sellout crowd, knocked off Boston University to get to Sunday's semifinal with Vermont.
As I made my way into Chase Arena (yes, through the Fans entrance again) and came into the barn, I turned toward the Hartford student section and did a double take. You may remember that the first time I was here (with school in session), there wasn't a soul there. When I got to my seat, with the temperature rising because of body heat, the bands playing, a buzz in the stands, I couldn't help but look around like one of those movies where a country kid peeks his head out in Manhattan for the first time.
I could picture Gallagher in the locker room he'd been in a few dozen times, getting to the door (did we ever establish why head coaches come out only a minute before the game?), and saying to himself, "Welcome to Indiana basketball" before banging the door open and coming out to the unmistakable sounds of a big game.
Yes, they were 9-21, but a win here would put Gallagher and the Hawks in the America East finals, on national television. People would talk about him and his team. It would be the next step forward.
And Gallagher's Hawks played their guts out. A late run put favored Vermont up 38-30 at the half, but as has been a theme this March, the seniors led Hartford back. Point guard Andres Torres was a man possessed, while Clayton Brothers and Genesis Maciel weren't far behind, all three knew that a loss would be their last.
As Hartford made a run, Gallagher looked to the student section and waved them on, pumping his fists, looking around the arena waving his hands as Vermont called time. Yes, this is it, he probably thought. This is what it looked like in my visions.
The game was a classic March battle. Neither team led by more than four in the last 18 minutes of regulation, Torres' #yeoldesuperhoop with 1:12 to go put the Hawks in front 60-58. Although Torres cruelly fouled out seconds later, freshman Mark Nwakamma gave Hartford a lead with 30 seconds left, but -- after it looked like he was in deep trouble -- Luke Apfeld's dunk tied the game, and Hartford couldn't get a good look at the other end.
Overtime. No problem. It would make the success even more sweet.
Hartford had a two-point lead with 1:30 left, but now Nwakamma, huge at the end of the season, was gone with five fouls. Down one with 30 seconds left, Maciel spun, surely travelled, and put the ball in as whistles blew. With the rapidity and sharpness of the multiple tweets, I expected to see the twirling motion and pointing the other way.
But there was a pause. Two officials looked at each other, and everyone's eyes stayed on them as a second, two, five went by. Finally, there was a nod and a downward arm motion. The basket was good and Maciel was going to the line. Normally calm Vermont coach John Becker was incensed, but obviously it was no use.
Could that be the break that Gallagher needed?
It was another #yeoldesuperhoop for Hartford, they led 68-66. Vermont looked confused on its next possession, as the Hartford student section prepared to storm the court, Gallagher could surely feel their presence behind him. But Catamount point guard Sandro Carissimo, as composed as they come, found a way to hit a contested 10-footer with seven seconds left to tie the game.
Gallagher eschewed a time out, the ball ended up in the hands of freshman Yolonzo Moore, he drove to the basket, put the ball off the glass to the rim. The student section pushed through the rope separating them from the court, Gallagher hopped off the sideline toward them, there was a brief moment of silence, anticipation, that seemed to last forever.
The ball went around the rim, bounced back off the backboard, and came off.
Gallagher, near midcourt by now, looked skyward, and tried, again, to compose himself.
Again, Hartford had a lead (on a Moore hoop that stayed down this time), but it was Carissimo again with 12 seconds left to give the Catamounts a 75-73 lead. After a time out, Gallagher ran a play to get Maciel an open three-pointer, but he was never open, it was an air ball, and Vermont was headed to the America East finals, surviving 77-73.
Gallagher did all the requisite things as the buzzer went off, he shook hands, congratulated Vermont, went to the press conference and thanked the Hartford students (promising to do things to get them back next season), and gave his seniors their due.
But this was one of those losses that will hurt more in the coming months than it did immediately afterward, once you've had time to go over the ifs and buts of each individual sequence that could have made the difference between a national television appearance and another step toward obscurity.
And as Gallagher works the ridiculous amount of hours needed to recruit and try to get his players better, all in an effort to get back the same place 12 months from now, he'll probably keep getting the questions about why he does it.
Most of us are familiar with Theodore Roosevelt's famous "critic" quote (surely Gallagher is), but he actually had a similar one that might be more pertinent 16 years prior, before he was a household name, and well before he was President.
"Criticism is necessary and useful; it is often indispensable; but it can never take the place of action, or be even a poor substitute for it. The function of the mere critic is of very subordinate usefulness. It is the doer of deeds who actually counts in the battle for life, and not the man who looks on and says how the fight ought to be fought, without himself sharing the stress and the danger."
The fact is, no matter how trivial some people may consider things like basketball, there are few professions or activities where you're going to get a night like Sunday, with everything both teams had worked for months to do on the line, a good old-fashioned zero-sum game where one team advances and one does not.
If only that ball had gone in.
VERMONT 77, HARTFORD 73 03/04/2012
VERMONT 22-11 (13-3) -- B. Voelkel 2-5 1-4 5; M. Glass 6-12 0-0 15; S. Carissimo 7-13 2-2 18; L. Apfeld 2-4 9-9 13; F. McGlynn 6-15 0-0 16; B. Bald 1-4 1-1 3; C. Rugg 2-3 1-1 5; J. Elbaum 0-0 0-1 0; B. Crenca 1-1 0-0 2; P. Bergmann 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 27-57 14-18 77. HARTFORD 9-22 (7-9) -- Y. Moore II 2-11 0-0 5; C. Brothers 3-6 4-5 10; N. Sikma 2-6 0-0 6; M. Nwakamma 6-13 2-3 14; A. Torres 7-12 2-4 18; G. Maciel 5-7 1-2 15; C. Wroe 0-0 1-2 1; W. Cole 1-5 0-0 3; J. Schneck 0-0 0-0 0; O. Faulk 0-0 1-2 1; R. Baker 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 26-60 11-18 73.
Three-point goals: UVM 9-26 (M. Glass 3-4; B. Bald 0-3; S. Carissimo 2-5; B. Voelkel 0-1; C. Rugg 0-1; F. McGlynn 4-12), HART 10-26 (A. Torres 2-5; G. Maciel 4-5; W. Cole 1-5; Y. Moore II 1-5; N. Sikma 2-6); Rebounds: UVM 32 (B. Voelkel 12), HART 27 (Y. Moore II 8); Assists: UVM 11 (B. Voelkel 6), HART 13 (A. Torres 3); Total Fouls -- UVM 18, HART 22; Fouled Out: UVM-None; HART-M. Nwakamma.