For the last five seasons, I have made my way to a conference tournament game each season. In 2007, I watched Creighton knock off Southern Illinois in the MVC Tournament Final to advance to the NCAA Tournament. In 2008, I watched UNO win the NCC Tournament, and in 2010, I watched UNO win the MIAA Tournament. In 2009 and 2011 I watched UNO's season end in the MIAA Tournament.
Now that it's become a bit of a tradition for me and I'm faced with four years without UNO being eligible for any conference tournaments, I was faced with a dilemma. Go to Sioux Falls to watch some of the Summit League Tournament, or not. Okay, calling it a dilemma is a big stretch; there was little chance I was going to miss my chance this year. I picked out the semifinal Monday to go up, knowing I'd get to watch two games and (hopefully) most of the top four teams.
Game one featured fourth-seeded Western Illinois playing top-seeded Oral Roberts. Western was the only team of the four I would see that night that I had seen earlier in the year. I'd actually seen them twice when they played UNO, including just five days earlier. Western plays a strong defensive style and works really hard. They were fun to watch, and I found myself pulling for them and the upset.
Midway through the second half, things were tied, but Oral Roberts went on a nice run to go up eight. I was ready to write Western Illinois off -- they barely had 40 points with six minutes to go -- but the Leathernecks were not ready to quit. They rallied and had cut the lead to 53-52 with 30 seconds left. Terrell Parks, Western's talented post presence, hit a jumper to give them the lead and they held on with some great defense to win the game.
The South Dakota State fans at the game, and there were many, were thrilled. The upset meant they avoided the top-seeded Golden Eagles and just had to beat Southern Utah and Western Illinois to make their first NCAA Tournament trip. I was excited too, because Western was a team I'd gotten to know, and it was nice to see them do well at the tournament. I did feel sorry for Oral Roberts, though. They had an amazing year, 27-6 overall and 17-1 in conference. It didn't matter anymore; this loss ended their NCAA Tournament dreams. It evaporated quickly and was gone.
Being in a neutral site seeing both sides of the battle, the underdog pulling the upset and the favorite getting knocked off, it was easy to relate to both teams. For every underdog that pulls off the upset there is a favorite who has to get beat. Obviously we all want to be on the underdog's side when they pull off the upset, but we aren't always. I guess I'll admit that it scares me to think about being that favorite. Thankfully I won't have to worry about that with UNO anytime soon. Being the underdog is great; there's no pressure about expectations and every upset win can mean so much. Watching Oral Roberts' season crumble made me shudder.
WESTERN ILLINOIS 54, ORAL ROBERTS 53 03/05/2012
WESTERN ILLINOIS 18-13 (9-9) -- D. Ward 3-10 3-5 11; C. Clark 4-9 0-1 11; T. Tyler 2-6 1-2 5; J. Houpt 3-5 0-0 9; T. Parks 6-8 2-2 14; O. Emegano 2-9 4-4 8; D. Gebru 2-2 1-1 5; R. Roberts-Burnett 1-1 0-0 2; D. McAvoy III 0-0 0-0 0; J. Packer 0-1 0-0 0. Totals 20-41 8-10 54. ORAL ROBERTS 27-6 (17-1) -- W. Niles 5-13 0-0 11; R. Pearson Jr. 3-9 1-1 7; D. Morrison 9-12 5-8 23; M. Craion 1-6 1-3 3; D. Bell-Holter 2-5 0-0 5; S. Roundtree 0-3 4-4 4; M. Manghum 0-0 0-0 0; J. Lliteras 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 20-48 11-16 53.
Three-point goals: WIU 6-13 (C. Clark 3-5; T. Tyler 0-3; J. Houpt 3-5), ORU 2-13 (R. Pearson 0-3; D. Morrison 0-2; W. Niles 1-6; D. Bell-Holter 1-2); Rebounds: WIU 19 (T. Parks 8), ORU 30 (M. Craion 11); Assists: WIU 10 (T. Tyler 4), ORU 6 (M. Craion 3); Total Fouls -- WIU 13, ORU 15; Fouled Out: WIU-None; ORU-None.