NCAA BK

RICHARDS: March Sadness for these first-round losers

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Darryl Richards

 
   
 
There were no upsets here. Nobody had a wild celebration. Nobody had to cuss out loud because one of the teams playing in the American Airlines Center destroyed their bracket. Just don't tell the four teams that lost Friday, that their games were uneventful. Illinois-Chicago, Hawaii and McNeese State won their respective conference postseason tournaments. Boston College was an at-large selection and received one of the last invitations. The four teams were different in stature and talent but shared the same aspirations. Now, they share the distinction of being one and done with 33 other teams playing in NCAA tournament. "I expected to win two games here and another one up the road and then play my brother (Ohio State guard Boban) in San Jose," Hawaii guard Predrag Savovic said. "We have high expectations in everything, but sometimes it doesn't meet the achievement." Here is a look at the tournament experience for these four teams:

Illinois-Chicago

Illinois-Chicago coach Jimmy Collins spent part of the week trying to explain to his players what the NCAA Tournament experience was all about. The last thing he wanted was his team to be overwhelmed by the experience of playing in a glamorous arena or a large crowd. He also didn't want the Flames to be intimidated by an Oklahoma team that was seeded No. 2 in the tournament and just beat top-ranked Kansas in the Big 12 tournament. The Flames took the message to heart. When UIC was in the midst of their traditional huddle at the center jump circle before tipoff, Oklahoma came on the court for their huddle. The Sooners started jumping up and down in unison and started to invade UIC's space. That's when 5-10 sophomore guard Martell Bailey decided to stand his ground. There was a little bit of pushing and shoving before officials broke up the minor scuffle. ''We got there first,'' Bailey said. ''Coach told us not to fear anyone. I thought they were trying to make us fearful.'' The Flames were the first team to lose here and as they made the slow walk back to the locker room, senior center Thor Solverson wanted to soak it all in for a few more moments. Solverson panned the spanking new arena and headed into the tunnel with tears welling in his eyes. This was it for Solverson, but there was a certain satisfaction in getting here. Solverson was a member of the only other UIC team to play in the NCAA tournament. Solverson was a freshman that year and the Flames went on to Hartford, Conn., where they lost to UNC-Charlotte in the first round. That could have been Solverson's only NCAA moment. A twist of fate gave Solverson another opportunity to play in the postseason. Solverson's career could have ended last year when he tore the medial collateral ligament and the meniscus in his right knee in the fourth game of the season against Northern Illinois. Instead, Solverson sought and received a medical hardship waiver from the NCAA. To finish his career in the NCAA tournament was bittersweet. "There was a lot of dust in the air," Solverson quipped. "It's emotional. It's tough to lose your final game and you all of a sudden realize your career is over. You've been around these coaches and guys for a long time. It's something you don't find in your regular life unless you play after college." That may be an option, considering Solverson is a true 7-0 center. He is considering playing overseas. But first he plans to graduate with a degree in finance in May.

Hawaii

The Hawaii basketball team had been on the road for nearly three weeks in a trip that included stops at Reno, Fresno, Tulsa and Dallas. Dr. Michael D'Andrea and his wife Dr. Judith Daniels were with the team every step of the way. So was their 3-year-old daughter Mahealani Daniels. D'Andrea and his wife have developed close ties with the Rainbow Warriors after working with the team for the last four years. To them, the players weren't just athletes. They were 13 uncles to Mahealani. Playing in the NCAA tournament was a goal and to do it, the 'Bows had to play well in their last five games. Maybe Mahealani was the leading indicator of what would happen once Hawaii played in the tournament. As the 'Bows walked through the hallway leading to American Airlines Center court, Mahealani was knocked out on her mother's shoulder. She picked up a cold early in day and did not wake up until midway in the second half when Hawaii was in the midst of a severe scoring drought. "She gave the guys high-fives when we got in the van to go to the game," D'Andrea said. "I just think the trip eventually got to her. She had a couple of 'Let's go 'Bows' in the middle of the second half. But that was about it."

McNeese State

There was 13:18 left in first half McNeese State forward Damond Williams decided to go for his highlight moment in the NCAA tournament. He dunked on Mississippi State center Mario Austin to give the Cowboys a 12-6 lead and make a group of vocal McNeese State fans jump out of their seats. "I thought that was fun," Williams said. "Really, it was a lot of fun when we were up in the game. People thought we would go away and we showed we were tough." Williams certainly enjoyed his moment in the spotlight. When he came back to the other end of the floor, he gave the fans sitting in the McNeese section of the arena a salute. During pauses in the game, Williams acknowledged the fans and encouraged them to cheer. For a moment, it looked like the Cowboys would pull off the biggest upset in the tournament. McNeese led for most of the first half and at one point led by as many as eight points. Ultimately, the Cowboys did not have enough athletes and could not defend Austin down low. Austin had 16 of his 25 points in the first half. Still, Williams was appreciative of the moment and is now at a place he can call home. McNeese is Williams fourth stop in a 4-year career that started at New Mexico State and an NCAA tournament appearance as a freshman. Williams later transferred to Memphis where he first met McNeese coach Tic Price. Williams, who sat out his season at Memphis, transferred to Panola Junior College when Price resigned. "Some of the things that happened in my career were my choice and some were not," said Williams, who is from Chicago and has a tattoo of the city's skyline on his left shoulder. "I'm just very appreciative to be here now. It's not easy going from school to school but I made the adjustments to different programs. My motto is to never give up. That has been me since I was born."

Boston College

Although Boston College won 20 games this season, the Eagles weren't sure if they would receive an invite to the NCAA tournament. They finished 8-8 in the Big East and were 5-5 in their last 10 games of the season. It was obviously close. The NCAA made the Eagles a No. 11 seed, an indication that Boston College was very close to not making the cut. None of that mattered to Boston College guard Ryan Sidney, who has an undeniable will to play basketball. Sidney broke his jaw earlier running a drill in practice in December and had to have it wired shut. Sidney never missed a game, although he did miss a few hamburgers and lost about 10 pounds. Sidney will have a few weird memories of his NCAA tournament experience. Boston College had the distinction of playing Texas in Dallas. Sidney, who finished the season averaging 14.2 points and shooting 45.1 percent from the field, did not score a point in the game. He missed all nine of his attempts from the field. Sidney decided it wasn't his night to score when a shot rolled out of the basket for the third time in the game. So Sidney concentrated on helping the team in other ways. He led Boston College with seven rebounds and six assists but it wasn't enough to prevent a 70-57 Texas victory. "I couldn't hit the side of a barn with a rock if I wanted to," Sidney said. "But the key thing was I helped other people on our team get open and in the second half I decided that if I couldn't score then I need to help other people get off. It's not always about what you could do but what your team can do."

The Memories

Ryan Hellenthal did most of his work Friday tossing towels. As the UIC manager, that's one of his main jobs. For most of the trip to Dallas, Hellenthal served as the team's videographer. Hellenthal brought his camcorder on the trip to chronicle the NCAA experience. He had it on when UIC players boarded the plane, when they walked into their hotel, and when they bussed to AAC and throughout the media interviews. He wanted to make copies of the tape and give it to the players after the season. The camcorder was nowhere to be found in UIC's locker room after Friday's game. "I just wanted to give everybody a chance to reflect on the experience," Hellenthal said. "You want to come here and compete and you don't want to be one and done. But you have to be proud of this accomplishment. Nobody expected us to be here." Darryl Richads can be reached at his e-mail address, drichards@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Memphis, UAB, Illinois, New Mexico State, Mississippi State, Mississippi, Northern Illinois, McNeese State, Illinois-Chicago, Boston College, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas, Hawaii, Tulsa, New Mexico

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