William Butler Yeats
WEST HARTFORD, Conn. - This season marked the first time that Hartford advanced to postseason play, while the University of Connecticut - which plays most of its games just a couple of miles down the road at the XL Center - did not.
In fact, I knew that without even wasting time looking it up. How? Well, it was Hartford's first postseason appearance since .... ever. (UConn, of course, was ineligible for postseason play, due to poor graduation rates.)
Technically, the Hawks did play in the Division II NCAA Tournament back in 1975, but after three decades in Division I, Hartford had never played in a postseason game. Until Tuesday night.
And the fans filled the Chase Family Center to the rafters to welcome Rider for the first round of the tournament.
Well, I guess an announced attendance of 871 isn't exactly filling the rafters. And it was a tournament, but it wasn't The Tournament, it was the Collegeinsider.com Tournament, a recent invention for teams that have decent seasons and want to keep playing, but can't quite make the NIT.
You can scoff if you must, and part of me has an instinct to do so as well, but for the Hawks - who had just two winning seasons in the past 15 years - it was something to be proud of, third-year coach John Gallagher trying to change a culture so ingrained in mediocrity
, Gallagher was likely still finding remnants of it in his office three years after taking the job.
Their opponent on this night - Rider - was the No. 2 seed in the MAAC Tournament, and probably stood to be a little less excited about the proceedings, but for coaches and players, games are games, and are undoubtedly better than not playing games.
First-year coach Kevin Baggett did not leave his seat in the entire first half as the action went back and forth, the Broncs seeming to have too much athleticism for the Hawks. Anthony Myles pair of superhoops put Rider up at 25-23 at the break, but the most interesting moment came with 4:30 on the clock, when Mark Nwakamma - Hartford's best player and one of my favorite players of TMM9 - took an elbow above the eye and was forced to the sidelines with blood streaming from his face.
As the referees went to the monitor (ultimately no flagrant foul was given), Nwakamma took a seat on the trainer's table behind the Hartford bench. Hartford's trainer took a look or two at the wound, then got on the phone, and was soon joined by another man.
And, as the game continued just a few feet away, the man went to work on Nwakamma. First, a blanket of sorts was placed around his neck. Then, what looked like novocaine was shot into his face as the two men frantically tried to stitch Nwakamma's face up. As the teams went to the locker room, Nwakamma was still lying there as the work on his wound continued.
Now this probably happens every once in a while in Our Game where someone gets injured and needs to be stitched up to return, but the fact that it was so close to the court and obviously in very public view seemed to make this unique.
I happened to be sitting behind the Hartford women's team (who has had much, much more success than the men over the years under former UConn star Jennifer Rizzotti). One of their star players, Amber Bepko, played for our rivals when I coached (and her former team finally won a state championship over the weekend in their fourth straight trip to the finals on this play), so I knew her well enough to ask if she knew who the second man was that rushed in.
"I don't even know. I think he's the doctor that's on call. I've seen him at some of our games, but I don't know him."
Hmmm. The mystery deepens.
A few minutes into halftime, in a Frankenstein-esque move, Nwakamma (pronounced WA-kam-mah, by the way, the N is silent) sprang up to a sitting position. The women's team gave him an ovation, but poor Nwakamma just shook his head and rolled his eyes.
He was able to play all 20 minutes in the second half, and at times tried to singlehandedly keep the Hawks in the contest, scoring 14 of his 17 points after the minor surgery to his face. But all year long, Hartford had lived by the #superhoop, and therefore - like in an America East Tournament loss to Maryland-Baltimore County - died by it as well, and on this night, they finished 2-for-19 from behind the arc, 0-for-8 after halftime.
Hartford took its last lead on a Yolonzo Moore layup with 6:30 to go, but Rider - with Baggett now roaming the sidelines and challenging calls per normal procedure - was flawless at the free throw line down the stretch and the Hawks' big season came to an end with a 63-54 loss.
The Hawks return most of their squad, including the sophomore Nwakamma, so the future still looks bright for Gallagher, even if they desperately need another post presence.
In the end, with the threat of icy roads looming, I didn't get a chance to hang around and get the name of the doctor who performed the brilliant rapid surgery on the fly.
Like so many others before him this season, he will go down among the unknown that make Our Game great.
Unknown, but not unnoticed by us here at the Mid-majority.