They call this Championship Week. It’s also Punch-In-The-Gut Week. This is the week where NCAA tournament dreams come to be fulfilled, but also to die.
Duke or Kentucky can go down in conference play, no big deal. Might harm the seed in the NCAA tournament a bit. But life in the one-bid leagues is much harsher. Lose, and their chances to play in the big show are toast. They go home to watch someone else dancing in their place.
“When you’re in a one-bid league this is everything,” said Northern Kentucky coach Darrin Horn, one of the week’s victims. “To lose it, there’s not really much that can be said to make (the players) feel better.”
Not that the bright light leagues can’t feel pain this week.
Xavier, for instance, missing 16 of 29 free throws — including five in the final 50 seconds — to blow a lead, and eventually lose in overtime to Butler in a Big East game that might knock the Musketeers off the board.
“Puts a pit in your stomach,” coach Travis Steele said. “It’s what we work for every single day . . . starting last spring, all summer, all fall, all season. We’ve had 98 practices this season. It’s a gut-wrencher.”
But the purest anguish must be in the one-bid conferences, where second place doesn’t mean a thing. Here is 2022’s Heartbreak List.
Long Beach State
Dan Monson, the coach who built the Gonzaga empire that Mark Few would inherit and enhance, has found a home at Long Beach State. It’s been 10 years since the program’s last NCAA tournament bid, but that seemed about to change when the Beach recovered from a 4-9 start to win the Big West regular-season championship and then built an early 14-point lead on Cal State Fullerton Saturday night in the conference tournament final.
But the turnovers and fouls mounted, and leading rebounder Aboubacar Traore was injured. The lead began to melt. It came down to the final 18 seconds; Long Beach State had the ball down 72-71. Monson had no timeouts left to plan a last play, but there was still plenty of time left for someone to hit the game-winner.
They never even got off a shot.
Defense wins championships!#TusksUp pic.twitter.com/k1mUwll0Dr— Titans Men's Basketball (@FullertonMBB) March 13, 2022
“It’s tough in that locker room right now,” Monson said afterward. “It wasn’t because they didn’t fight. It wasn’t because they lost, they got beat.”
As regular-season champion, Long Beach State is assured of an NIT spot. “We’re still going to be playing,” said Monson, who 23 years ago had Gonzaga in a program-changing Elite Eight.” Our guys don’t want to hear that right now.”
North Texas and Middle Tennessee
Double anguish in Conference USA.
Can you imagine upsetting Purdue last March in the NCAA tournament, going 16-2 in the C-USA West division this season in a determined effort to get back to the dance for more fun, then giving up only 42 points in a league semifinal game . . . and losing?
North Texas did, because the Mean Green shot 24 percent and fell 42-36 to Louisiana Tech in the lowest combined scoring game in Division I this season.
Can you imagine getting picked to finish last in the league, blowing away the skeptics by winning the C-USA East division, then having the magic ride end in three overtimes?
Middle Tennessee did, because the Blue Raiders couldn’t stop UAB’s Jordan Walker from scoring 40 points. “I feel for them, a lot of guys in the locker room are really hurting,” coach Nick McDevitt said. “They did what they were asked, they did it well, but you don’t get the result.”
North Dakota State
What’s a 23-victory team to do when its main roadblock is an opponent with the nation’s longest winning streak, best three-point shooting percentage, and most potent offense this side of Gonzaga?
All the Bison could do against South Dakota State was play the Jackrabbits tough. Which they did. South Dakota State’s 21-game winning streak is the finest in the land, but three of the 21 were close calls with North Dakota State; twice by four points and 75-69 in the Summit League championship game, when the Bison led with three minutes left. Problem is, being a stubborn adversary won’t get you invited to the NCAA tournament.
“It’s hard because it mattered,” coach David Richman said of his emotional team afterward. “It’s OK that this is hard because it’s supposed to be hard when you put this much into it.”
The Gaels had rolled through the MAAC with a 17-3 league record. But all that didn’t help after a game-winning shot in the lane by Dwight Murray Jr. with 7.3 seconds left for 9th-seeded Rider evicted Iona from the quarterfinals — and the NCAA tournament bracket. Never mind the 25-7 record or the upset of Alabama in November, only the program’s second win ever over a top-10 opponent, and first in 42 years.
“Their dreams all come to an end when you’re in a one-bid league, but it happens,” coach Rick Pitino said after the 71-70 loss. “When you’re in a one-bid league you suffer. When I was at Louisville or Kentucky sometimes you’re playing for seeds, you know you’re in the tournament. The players are devastated.”
The Norse were up 16 points in the second half of the Horizon League final against a Wright State team they had already beaten twice. Get the Selection Sunday party ready because everything looked great.
And then it wasn’t. Wright State wiped out the gap and Trey Calvin’s pull-up jumper with just over 10 seconds left won it for the Raiders 72-71. It happened so quickly; the lead and then the game and the NCAA tournament were gone for Northern Kentucky. One image afterward said everything: Senior Trevon Faulkner sobbing into his towel, unable to answer a press conference question.
Any coach would be crushed to see his players hurt so. This is the hard side of March.
“It’s brutal,” Horn said. “Anybody that has anything to say about college athletics . . . they need to spend a few minutes in a locker room like ours. These kids pour their hearts out. It means a lot to them.”
“I was out of coaching and got back in because of this. This hurts, but this is what it’s all about. There’s no greater lesson for life than having to go through this. These guys did everything they could, and it didn’t work out the way they wanted it to. That’s a hard lesson to learn.”
One’s been doing it for 25 years. The other has literally been a Raider for life. #RaiderFamily, there’s no other way we’re starting the day off other than the radio call from Chris Collins & Jim Brown! 🐺#RaiderUP | @MarchMadnessMBB pic.twitter.com/EXiH1lTQVl— Wright State Men’s Basketball (@WSU_MBB) March 9, 2022
It is a player’s childhood fairy tale but look how quickly it can turn into a horror movie: The chance to score the big points in the final seconds to win an important game. In the driveway dreams, the ball always goes in.
In real life, not for Kyle Lofton.
Survival and advancement seemed so close for the Bonnies in the Atlantic 10 quarterfinal against Saint Louis. They had rallied from 10 points down and trailed only 57-56 with 1.8 seconds left. Lofton — senior star, four-year team captain, 82.6 percent free throw shooter — was at the line.
Two to win, one to tie.
He missed both.
So ended St. Bonaventure’s bumpy journey back to the NCAA tournament. The Bonnies started 5-0 and beat the likes of Marquette, Boise State and Clemson while rising to No. 16 in the Associated Press poll. With an all-senior lineup, they seemed poised to be a March threat. Then the A-10 losses started piling up and they came into the league tournament a No. 4 seed. But with such experience — three of the starters had shared more than 11,000 minutes on the court — it was still reasonable to pick them.
Those five seniors played 190 of the 200 minutes against Saint Louis. With their leadership, St. Bonaventure had gone 25-2 the past two years when allowing 65 or fewer points. This third loss will long haunt them.
“One play doesn’t define you,” coach Mark Schmidt said of Lofton afterward. “He’s been everything to our program. It hurts, it stings. It’d be one thing if he didn’t put time in. He lives in the gym. He’s one guy who deserves to make those foul shots.
“I told him he has nothing to apologize for.”
And one other thing, that every team on this list could appreciate.
“Life’s not fair all the time.”
𝗦𝗨𝗥𝗩𝗜𝗩𝗘 𝗔𝗡𝗗 𝗔𝗗𝗩𝗔𝗡𝗖𝗘.— Saint Louis Men's Basketball (@SaintLouisMBB) March 12, 2022
𝗦𝗮𝗶𝗻𝘁 𝗟𝗼𝘂𝗶𝘀 𝘃𝘀. 𝗦𝘁. 𝗕𝗼𝗻𝗮𝘃𝗲𝗻𝘁𝘂𝗿𝗲 𝗥𝗲𝗰𝗮𝗽 🎥#𝗧𝗲𝗮𝗺𝗕𝗹𝘂𝗲 pic.twitter.com/upoayNghgB
The Paladins did so much right in overtime against Chattanooga in the Southern Conference final. They took five shots and made them all. The fifth was Mike Bothwell’s basket with 4.3 seconds left for a 63-61 lead. Chattanooga’s David Jean-Baptiste then raced up the court with the ball and crossed midcourt, in full desperation mode. Half the Furman student body seemed to be guarding him and the Paladins contested his 30-foot prayer but did not foul him. Just what they should have done.
Except, the shot went in. Not just in, but swished.
Up to then, Jean-Baptiste had taken nine three-pointers in the game and missed seven. But the 10th shot he’ll remember the rest of his life. Furman was done in by a sixth-year graduate student who has been in the Chattanooga program longer than eight of the league head coaches have been on their jobs. “I’m still kind of in disbelief,” Paladin guard Alex Hunter would say later.
The Mocs had only 16 points in the first half to fall behind by 10 but scored nearly as many — 13 — in overtime to win. Furman went 18-4 this season when leading at halftime. Three of the four losses were against Chattanooga.
By Saturday, Jean-Baptiste was on CBS, happily recalling his moment for a national audience. The Paladins were left to ponder what if.
“This is one of the hardest things I’ve been through just because of how much I care for our players and program,” Furman coach Bob Richey said after the game. “ It’s going to hurt but this won’t discourage us. This will motivate us . . . we’re going to be back in this game and we’re going to cut those nets down.”
Maybe next time. That message is what’s left for the heartbroken teams of Championship Week.