Sunday, March 11, 2007

Peak: What's great about college basketball

There’s something to be said for pure human emotion.

Sitting in a banquet/meeting room on the third floor of the Sewell Center at Robert Morris University on Saturday afternoon, in the wake of the RMU women’s win in the Northeast Conference championship game, the full range of emotions was on display.

There was RMU senior forward Sugeiry Monsac, a native of the Dominican Republic who scored 21 points on Saturday, the second-highest total in the game. Monsac was part of RMU’s unstoppable scoring force, along with junior Chinata Nesbit who scored 28. But while Nesbit and RMU head coach Sal Buscaglia spoke during the post-game press conference, Monsac just kept smiling, periodically giggling and occasionally interjecting with an exclamation of disbelief that her team is headed the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history.

It was elation. And it was unadulterated.

Rewind 15 minutes. In the same place where Buscaglia, Nesbit, and Monsac sat discussing the post-season and the NCAA Tournament and winning the NEC and how far the Robert Morris program has come, some far more somber bodies filled the chairs, namely Sacred Heart head coach Ed Swanson and seniors Amanda Pape and Jasmine Walker.

In this scene, the soft voice of Swanson broke the silence of the room, giving the requisite credit to the victors before attempting to explain his team’s failure to a group of people who couldn’t be more unfamiliar with the squad. He was flanked by two players who combined to score 38 of his team’s 66 points, but to look at them or listen to them speak, you would think that Pape and Walker had personally tanked the game.

Actually, that’s not true. Pape didn’t speak at all during the press conference, instead holding her head in her hands, covering red eyes that were swollen with tears. She barely looked up, and by the time the press conference was over after seven or eight minutes, her tears had started again.

Oprah Winfrey, Montel Williams, and a dozen reality shows would pay millions for this kind of display of true feeling.

Such is March in American college sports. And not just the standard NCAA-bracket busting-Cinderella story-12/5 upset variety of March Madness. This was a game of two teams playing for an NCAA Tournament bid. These teams were playing for the chance to keep playing. And on a mild Saturday in Moon Township, in a gymnasium that has been surpassed by numerous high school facilities, before a crowd of 850 people (a generous estimate), the true madness of March was there.

You see, there was no chance of an at-large bid for these teams. It was win or go home. Don’t even bother to watch the Selection Monday show; if you don’t win, you aren’t getting in. That’s all there is to it. So whatever you have in you, whatever there is that drives you, whatever it is that makes you who you are, you have to dig into that, pull it up, and throw it all on the court. And that’s exactly what they did.

To recap for those who missed the NEC women’s championship game:

RMU took off in the early goings, leading 25-10 at the midway point of the first half and holding a 38-25 advantage at halftime. But Sacred Heart woke up for the second half, opening the period with a 13-1 run that put the score at 39-38. From there, it was a battle of tooth and nail, as the two teams, both playing for the chance to keep playing, went back and forth for 16 minutes. When Sacred Heart tied the score at 52 with 9:22 left, it was the game’s first tie since 0-0, and Pape’s layup a minute later gave the Pioneers their first lead of the contest.

Sacred Heart eventually established a six-point lead with 5:39 to go, but the powerful duo of Nesbit and Monsac battled back for RMU. With 4.5 seconds left and RMU ahead 68-66, Pape got a pass from an inbounds play, drove the lane, and put up a shot. The ball careened off the backboard, missing the rim and ending Sacred Heart’s season.

The (estimated) 850 fans in attendance stormed the court, and for all the emotion that would later fill the press conference room, it was magnified in the seconds after the final buzzer sounded.

Elation. Despair. Satisfaction. Disappointment. It was all there. And on top of it all was a feeling that everyone in the building could share, a feeling that no matter what else was going on in the world of college basketball, the Sewell Center in Moon Township had just played host to a game that reminded everyone in attendance of a basic truth:

This is what it’s all about.

It’s about two teams, with their futures on the line, playing their hearts out and doing everything possible to emerge as victors. For two hours that afternoon, nothing else mattered.

“I wouldn’t be in tears if I didn’t give 100%,” said Sacred Heart’s Walker, who scored 18 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Walker, along with Pape, who scored 20, each played the full 40 minutes in the game. 100% indeed.

Later that night, several hundred miles away, in a packed arena and on national television, Pitt and Georgetown faced off for the Big East men’s conference championship. It was a game that Pitt fans, players, and coaches would probably like to forget, since the Panthers put in one of their most dismal performances in recent memory.

But while the loss was disappointing, it’s hard to say that the players for Pitt or Georgetown had anything even approaching the desperation displayed by Robert Morris and Sacred Heart. Because no matter how much the Panthers or Hoyas or their coaches tell you that they want to win the Big East tournament because it means something, it is impossible that it could have meant as much as the NEC championship game.

Win or lose, Pitt and Georgetown are in the NCAA Tournament. The same couldn’t be said for Robert Morris and Sacred Heart. For those two teams, the season was laid before them in one contest: the winner would be the team that recognized the opportunity to continue playing and seized that opportunity, while the loser would be the team that didn’t have enough to earn a post-season spot.

When was the last time Pitt had a game of such magnitude? When was the last time Pitt was playing in a game with everything on the line? Yes, the NCAA Tournament games are huge and are filled with plenty of pressure, but this game was played for the right to even take part in that tournament. The weight of the world was on the shoulders of the women who took the court on Saturday, and they responded with a game that was a fantastic representation of just how much they wanted to keep playing.

There’s something to be said for pure human emotion.

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