FAIRFIELD, Conn. - When last we left our heroes from Sacred Heart, Fate was shining upon them as the Pioneers were tied atop the Northeast Conference
. I wondered if Fate could hold out for a few more weeks and maybe keep them there, despite a rash of injuries and expectations that really weren't all the high before them.
Short answer: "No." Long answer: "Nope."
Sacred Heart came into Senior Day against Central Connecticut 1-5 in its last six games, going from first to possibly completely out of the NEC playoffs altogether (only eight of the 12 teams make the NEC Tournament). Central Connecticut, in ninth, was a game behind them and would hold the tiebreaker by beating them here, having captured the first meeting last month.
People look to numbers and concrete, indisputable facts when confronted with something they don't understand. Sacred Heart is losing because they are not shooting the ball as well, they are turning the ball over more, and their defensive field goal percentage has gone up. All of those three things are true, but if you're like me, you still question why. (I try to ask why a lot, so much it's gotten me in trouble more times than I care to count.)
However, the answers are elusive. If they weren't, we wouldn't have lengthy losing streaks or winning streaks. In fact, we'd barely have streaks at all. Coaches and players would know how to calibrate themselves to avoid them. Upsets would be fewer, everyone would shoot more consistently. Man, that would be a boring basketball world to live in, wouldn't it?
But humans play this game, and therefore coaches will still spend as much time worrying about how to get their players in the right frame of mind. And still fail.
I tried to focus on Shane Gibson during Saturday's game because he's been one of the most entertaining players I've seen in the last couple of seasons, particularly this year, where he helped carry a wounded team that often didn't give him a heck of a lot of help. After slumping to start the season, he was ninth in the nation in scoring at tip-off.
Gibson had seven points in the first five minutes and the Pioneers jumped out to an early lead. The players, fans, and coaches were all fired up. They had turned the corner, and were back to last month's Sacred Heart.
But they weren't, of course. Gibson couldn't get many open looks the rest of the way and even when he did, he couldn't make them count, getting more frustrated with each miss. There is a type of pain that's hard to describe. Even I wanted to go out there and help him, tell him I'd seen him at his best and he could do it. I'm sure, though, the coaches were telling him the same thing and it wasn't helping. It's not a matter of trying harder or smarter. Gibson was giving his usual 100 percent. He just couldn't get shots to fall.
Sacred Heart, helped in part by some fine shooting by Steve Glowiak (five first-half #superhoops) were able to stay within striking distance of the Blue Devils, who had struggled in their own right through the last month, but without Gibson scoring, things became much more difficult.
Instead, this day would belong to the only player in the NEC averaging more points than Gibson, CCSU sophomore Kyle Vinales. Vinales started off slowly, but as Gibson trailed off and faded away in the second half, Vinales was just getting started. Vinales scores in bunches, and once he got rolling in the final 10 minutes of the contest, Sacred Heart - never a stellar defensive team - couldn't stop him. In the end, Vinales finished with a game-high 28 points, 21 of them coming in the second half to lead his team to victory.
Full credit to Vinales, who is obviously extremely entertaining in his own right, but I'm always going to root for a senior over a sophomore in these situations. If Vinales missed out on the NEC Tourney, he'll still have two more tries. For Gibson, with only three tough road games left, this might have been his last hurrah at the Pitt Center, a building that's treated him so well after getting passed over by everyone after playing his high school ball in a small town in relative obscurity in eastern Connecticut.
Gibson finally connected on a #superhoop
with 2:47 left to draw Sacred Heart within 66-65, but the rest of the game belonged to Vinales and the Blue Devils, slow torture for Gibson (who finished with 14 points and 10 rebounds, but was just 5-of-16 from the field).
There are few, if any, more painful times in Our Game than when you're just close enough to continue fouling to extend the game, but have a big enough deficit to make up that you know it's a long shot at best.
In those agonizing moments as Sacred Heart fouled and the teams walked the length of the floor to allow CCSU to attempt free throws, a couple of Pioneer assistant coaches kept their heads in their hands, unable to even look. Dave Bike just stared straight ahead at nothing in particular. CCSU's Matt Hunter - who had been the victim of some trash talk by the Sacred Heart students - took the opportunity to return the favor with some directed clapping.
A lone Central fan screamed "What now?" repeatedly over and over, each time fraying another nerve of every Sacred Heart player and coach. Gibson could just look at the scoreboard and shake his head.
Finally, the torture ended. Sacred Heart has three more games left and would probably advance to the postseason by winning two of them, but - right now - that's a tall order. Unfortunately, in any zero-sum game, for every victor there must be a vanquished. I know, as a neutral observer that's supposed to give fair commentary on what I've seen, we're not supposed to play favorites.
Gibson will likely surpass 2,000 points in his next game, becoming the fifth player in NEC history to do so. I believe, especially with everything he's had to deal with this season, that he deserves one more moment in the sun, one more NEC Tournament game to show off the skills that have been such a joy to watch before they're gone from the college basketball world forever.
But I'm sure someone somewhere else feels the same about whomever Gibson's opponents have been and will be. So it doesn't really matter what I think he deserves, does it?