Late last night, long after President Obama left, and the large Western Kentucky crowd had filed out, I witnessed one of the truly special moments in college basketball. It wasn't the greatest comeback in NCAA Tournament history which was simultaneously ongoing. Sean Woods, the coach of Mississippi Valley State, had emerged after a heartbreaking loss by one point to personally thank each and every supporter of his school individually, in the stands. There were long heartfelt conversations and tearful embraces. Despite the sting of the loss and all the adversity the team had endured to get to this point, it didn't feel like the end.
Sean Woods knows all about loss. On March 28, 1992 with 2.1 seconds left in overtime, he hit the go-ahead basket to give Kentucky the lead by one over Duke, in that game which is most often remembered for "the shot" by Christian Laettner. This was a man who was poised to be a legend in Kentucky for life had they won. One shot later, his name was a footnote in basketball history. Sean Woods freely admits that "the shot" would go on to haunt him for years.
These were the thoughts that stayed with me as I left the arena, before I fell off into a deep sleep after having earlier driven some 900 miles to attend the event. The Opening Round's day two would have a tough time living up to the first day. I was already dealing with a sense of loss before game three even started, due to the fact that I had purchased these tickets on the hope that Stony Brook University would finally achieve its dream of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament. What I had to witness instead was an old adversary basking in the spotlight.
Losing the conference championship game in consecutive years is devastating to a program like Stony Brook that is trying to establish itself. To me, it feels like half a lifetime of waiting to break through and snatch a tourney bid, and maybe that's because it has been about 15 years at the Division I level with little to show. I used to live across the parking lot from the SBU Arena, its shadow always in my view... dreaming of better times ahead. There was a period early in the transition process from Division III to Division I when the athletic programs were in such disarray that promotions like "the crowd calls the play" during football games were commonplace. Slowly, progress has been made toward competing. Along the way, we have endured countless beatdowns at the hands of Vermont and Boston University. Even more difficult to swallow was staying home when other SUNY universities that we transitioned with have been to the dance already -- while all we could do was look toward the future. Just prior to the America East Championship Game, as I walked across the campus of Stony Brook, I was so proud to see how far we had come, proud to see the University together in a way I could not have imagined earlier. Then we came out shooting as poorly as I have seen all year. Hope died again.
It was by chance that my ticket assignment was in the Lamar section of the Dayton Arena. Lamar, with a similar color scheme to Stony Brook, made me feel like I was reliving the America East championship game again, and there were some major differences from the previous night. Far fewer people were in attendance, with small cheering sections for the teams involved. A night before, Western Kentucky and BYU fans seemed to be everywhere. Vast areas of the upper sections were empty and parking was plentiful.
Pat Knight had earlier called out his team in the media. Furthermore, when asked to defend his decision to do this, he lashed out at the interviewer on a radio show and left the session after hanging up on him. He later would recant and say that his behavior was explainable as a motivational tool to his players. His supporters seemed to think it had worked, and one sitting near me had a T-shirt that read "I Have The Worst Seniors!" Despite having seemingly quicker more agile players, Lamar had trouble dealing with Vermont's offensive sets.
This was a classic battle between athleticism and execution, and execution was going to win. The game started out close, with teams trading baskets for the first eight minutes. Then, just like in Stony Brook's final meaningful game, Vermont went on a run and Lamar was stuck playing from behind. Unlike the first night of the Opening Round, where two large leads were erased during each of the second halves, Vermont was happy to walk the ball up slowly, be deliberate, work the clock. Valley and Iona would have won if they had done this -- but it just didn't seem to be in the nature or philosophy of either team. The game was never in doubt after Vermont secured a ten point lead. Just a slow agonizing death.
There were few people at game three, and even fewer at game four. The first time teams above the Red Line would take the court. As California was in the midst of being taken apart by a hungry South Florida team, it hit me that Drexel had probably been passed over so they could have a West Coast based team play in the night cap of the Opening Round game. Maybe it made for better TV ratings. California had no business being in this tournament... a little bit of anger welled up inside of me. At least teams above the Red Line don't have cheerleaders with knee braces and c-sections!
After it was over, I was left with a long ride home to ponder what I had seen and experienced. The University of Dayton Arena is nice place -- I'll give it that. I'd recommend seeing a game there anytime. But I'm certainly not going to wax poetic about the Dayton fans, who by and large didn't turn out the second day. I've been to a lot of arenas where the game of basketball is played. There are many stadia across the country that could hold this game and draw a just as big (if not bigger) crowd. I'm assuming some of these writers who go gaga over this place have not traveled far beyond Ohio. It is not easy to see all these places. It takes a tenacity to endure alot of trials along the way and travel during winter can be tricky.
I know one place I am headed next year: Itta Bena, Mississippi.
VERMONT 71, LAMAR 59 03/14/2012
VERMONT 24-11 (13-3) -- B. Voelkel 1-2 1-1 3; S. Carissimo 3-8 3-4 10; M. Glass 5-12 1-2 11; F. McGlynn 5-9 5-6 18; L. Apfeld 3-11 1-2 7; P. Bergmann 4-4 0-0 8; B. Bald 2-2 1-2 5; C. Rugg 1-1 2-2 4; J. Elbaum 0-0 3-5 3; B. Crenca 1-1 0-0 2. Totals 25-50 17-24 71. LAMAR 23-12 (11-5) -- A. Miles 5-12 3-3 14; M. James 6-17 2-3 16; D. Lamb 4-8 8-9 16; S. Brown 2-5 2-2 6; D. Minor 1-4 0-0 3; B. Davis 1-4 0-0 2; C. Harper 0-6 0-0 0; O. Ebomwonyi 1-3 0-1 2; N. Acosta 0-1 0-3 0; V. Nelson 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-60 15-21 59.
Three-point goals: UVM 4-11 (M. Glass 0-1; S. Carissimo 1-4; B. Voelkel 0-1; F. McGlynn 3-5), LAM 4-13 (A. Miles 1-2; D. Minor 1-3; E. Davis 0-2; S. Brown 0-1; M. James 2-4; D. Lamb 0-1); Rebounds: UVM 33 (B. Voelkel 12), LAM 39 (S. Brown 13); Assists: UVM 16 (B. Voelkel 7), LAM 6 (A. Miles 3); Total Fouls -- UVM 19, LAM 17; Fouled Out: UVM-None; LAM-M. James.