Here’s to the losers. The NCAA Tournament is about surviving and advancing and dancing and celebrating. But in the end, for almost everybody, it’s about crying.
There will come a day for all but one team, when they gather in the locker room for the last time and remember how much fun it was, and what it all meant. Before the Sweet 16 continue the quest for further glory, we pause for words from some of the teams left behind. They have all come to understand March a little better.
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Here’s UCF coach Johnny Dawkins, trying to describe how long it will take to get over the anguish of coming so close against Duke.
“I can't put a timetable on how long it will take. I just know that, when we have games like this, we have to use them to become a better team and a better program. So we need to use this opportunity that we had to grow . . . The feeling shouldn't go away right away. I think that still having that feeling is not a bad thing. We need to utilize that to become better at what we do.”
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Here’s Fairleigh Dickinson coach Greg Herenda. His team had just been taken apart by Gonzaga, but in the last minute, he had been able to get a senior named Nadi Beciri into the game, after a year lost mostly to injury. Beciri made a basket and the coach felt a mile high, never mind the scoreboard.
“If you can get beat by 38 points and be euphoric and hug somebody, it's special, you know what I'm saying? That's a hard thing to do, be on national TV and get a little bit exposed and be in front of the camera and then a guy cuts it to 38 and you are the happiest guy in the building. It's a special moment, or there is something wrong with me . . . Every one of our players has a story in this tournament. Every single one has a story and Nadi's story amplifies what college athletics is about and it's way more than advancing and surviving. It's life. And he's going to have a great life.”
A class act through and through. pic.twitter.com/ZuPIbFbZpL— Temple Men's BBall (@TUMBBHoops) March 20, 2019
Here’s Temple senior Shizz Alston Jr. gathering his teammates together after they had lost to Belmont.
“I just thanked them for their work and allowing me . . . to get to the NCAA Tournament like we wanted to so badly.”
And Nevada’s Cody Martin, after the Wolf Pack ride ended so suddenly against Florida.
“I hope people understand how much work we put in and how much we sacrificed to get to this point, and there is a lot of people that helped us get to this point. Unfortunately we didn't get as far as we wanted to, and at the end of the day I'm not satisfied with how it ended. But I'm really glad we got to go this far.”
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And UC Irvine coach Russell Turner, explaining why he said he felt like a winner after losing to Oregon.
“One of the things I learned coaching in the NBA is sometimes when you lose, you just have to act like you won, because you're going to lose. And there's some of that with the NCAA Tournament. You're going to lose, unless you're the one team that ends up at the top. And so while it's painful for our season to end because it's been such a great journey, it doesn't feel like we lost. It feels like kind of what we did this year was like a cartoon or something, or a movie.”
And Buffalo senior CJ Massinburg, after his career ended against Texas Tech.
“I feel like the five seniors no matter how bad your day is going, if you talk to one of us, you're going to have a smile on your face and your day is going to get picked up and turned around. The city loved us for a reason. We’re always smiling and interacting with the fans — I just want people to remember that from our legacy.”
Here’s Minnesota coach Richard Pitino, after his senior star Jordan Murphy – who had never missed a game in his career -- could only play a few minutes because of a bad back against Michigan.
“It almost felt like a heavyweight fighter continuing to fight through it, even though he's bruised and beat up. That was him until the end. I wanted to get him that moment. That was special for everybody.”
Here’s Villanova senior Phil Booth, with a career that spanned two national championships, but that didn’t make losing to Purdue by 26 points any easier.
“Just a lot of the emotion going through your head. Last college game, our last time with that special group of players we had . . . It doesn't really sink in yet while you're on the court, because you're still just losing. But later on, how much the University has meant to me, coaching staff, Coach Wright, players I played with. I couldn't have asked for a better experience . . . Going out like that, I just wish it could have been better.”
And Murray State coach Matt McMahon, relating what he said at the end of the Florida State loss to the player who had caused such a national stir this season, Ja Morant.
“I just thanked him for what he's done, not only for our program, not only what a joy he's been to coach this season and through the whole recruiting process, but thanked him for what he's done for Murray State University.”
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Here’s Wofford’s Fletcher Magee, trying to come to terms with where his shooting went against Kentucky.
“Sometimes you shoot the ball just how you think you're going to shoot it and it feels good and looks good and just doesn't go in.”
And Maryland coach Mark Turgeon, after his team lost in the final seconds to LSU.
“We gave it everything we had. They deserve better. They deserved better today. That's why I'm disappointed.”
And Baylor coach Scott Drew, after Gonzaga ended the Bears’ season.
“I think every year a coach doesn't like to see the last game come to an end, but some years are just a little harder than others. In the locker room we all had a really good cry because we genuinely liked one another and appreciated how each person contributed.”
And Gardner-Webb player Brandon Miller, on the indelible memory of playing No. 1 seed Virginia, and losing the game, but not being defeated.
“For me, it's unforgettable. I could carry this on for the rest of my life, and no one can take it from me. I'm going to dream about this tonight for sure . . . There's no better way to go out senior year than going to March Madness.”
Here are two Cincinnati Bearcats at the microphone after losing to Iowa, Justin Jenifer the senior.
Jenifer: “Love you, bro.”
Trevon Scott: “Love you too, bro. It’s just frustrating.”
Jenifer: “I didn't picture that we were going to lose this game today. I pictured my senior year still going on. But at the end of the day, it happened.”
“You never like to lose that last game, but maybe it was time. I would have enjoyed having the opportunity to be with these guys for a little bit longer. My message to them in the locker room after is that 25 years from now, when they get together, they're not going to remember this loss. They're going to remember the fact that we had this opportunity.”
And New Mexico State coach Chris Jans, on the last seconds of the game that got away against Auburn:
“I'm looking forward to watching it at some point. I won't watch it today, or tomorrow, but at some point I will get over this and put myself back together and sit down and watch it. It will be hard, I'm sure.”
And Saint Louis coach Travis Ford, after playing Virginia Tech tough.
“The guys in our locker room, I just told them, have made me a better person, a better coach. And it's not about winning. They've made me a better person, a better coach through all the things that we've been through . . . I think the second half tonight was a true definition of who we are, and I told them I can go out that way. I can sleep good tonight, because this is a team that doesn't give up. This is a group of young men that really believed in each other, came from a lot of different places. And I'm so proud of them, and they've taught me so much. And I thank them for that.”
They all came, played, savored the moment, and lost. For those leaving, that is the last image of college basketball, though not the ones that mean the most. For those coming back, here’s Mississippi’s Breein Tyree, speaking for all of them after the Rebels were beaten by Oklahoma. For them, March was also about the yearning to get back one day.
“I'm not happy with it, but back to the drawing board we go.”