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Friday, June 21, 2024
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Keeping the faith in sports

Sideline Scholars

Walking out of Stabler Arena after AU's crushing 59-57 loss at Lehigh in Sunday's Patriot League Men's Basketball championship, I knew the drive back to AU would be long, lonely and depressing.

I'm a writer - not a player, a coach, a manager or a member of the athletics department. But having covered the team for the last two years, I couldn't help but hurt for them.

I hurt for junior forward Matej Cresnik, whose desperate 30-footer just missed. I ache for senior guard Andres Rodriguez, who ended his career with an incredible game-ending performance that was muffled by the loss. I grieve for head coach Jeff Jones, who revived an AU program that sank in the doldrums throughout the 1990s, yet for a third straight year fell just one game short of stamping his legacy on the program.

In my heart, I figured the Eagles were slight underdogs on Sunday. Slight enough to come excruciatingly close to winning and getting to their first NCAA tournament. Slight enough to suffer the same misery a lot of teams have experienced this past week.

There was the Big West final the night before, where sixth-seeded Cal State-Northridge also came within a last-second three-pointer of its first tournament bid. There was 11th-seeded Villanova flying into the semifinals of the Big East tournament with dreams of the Dance, only to get stomped into the NIT by Connecticut. And don't forget George Mason, the Colonial Athletic Conference third seed, losing to Virginia Commonwealth in the finals by a foul shot with 1.6 seconds left and the score tied at 54.

I drove around trying to find I-78 and wondered why championship week was so cruel to the Eagles, and to a lot of other teams that just wanted one slice of the 65-piece pie. I wondered why a week bringing joy to little guys like Valparaiso or Monmouth, seemingly every year, so savagely brings pain to even littler guys like IUPUI or Central Connecticut State. In that light, it's hard to understand why I ever got my hopes up.

Driving toward Allentown, Pa. from neighboring Bethlehem, I did the only thing I could to escape my depression - I dialed another game up on the radio.

In it, Maryland, my second favorite college team, trailed Duke by 12 points in the Atlantic Coast Conference final. About three minutes remained, and the top seeded Blue Devils looked headed to their sixth straight conference title. I expected nothing less than for Duke to win, running away from the inexperienced Terrapins, who finished sixth in the regular season. It would've fit with the rest of the heartbreaking week.

But the Terrapins, who had no business in the final, closed the gap in the final minutes of regulation. Duke guard J.J. Redick, who usually hits huge shots, missed an open three-pointer at the buzzer to win, sending the game to overtime. There, Maryland pulled away for the improbable 95-87 win, and its first ACC championship in 20 years.

As I listened driving down the interstate, I edged off my seat and moved closer to the pedals. With the energy and enthusiasm I'd suppressed while covering AU's game, I cheered every Terrapin make and taunted every Duke miss. When Redick missed, I knew something special was afoot. And when the buzzer sounded, I grinned ear to ear.

Through Harrisburg and Gettysburg, Pa., and Frederick, Md., I still mourned the death of AU's season. But Maryland's win eased the greater pain, when no relief was in sight.

Brackets permit only one team to win its final game, so most of the time, your heart gets broken. But now and then, you're that lucky team. And once in a great while, its win when its not supposed to. The joy is so pure and so full that the pain of decades is erased with one sounding of the buzzer. All of a sudden, the suffering in future decades doesn't seem so bad.

It didn't happen for AU this year. But someday it will. And it might be expected, or it might fall out of the sky. Either way, the tears shed from that one day of joy could drown a century's worth of sorrows.

As the semester comes to an end and one of the founding members leaves American University, Section 202 has decided to take a trip down memory lane. For our fans, old and new, who are wondering how Section 202 came to be, this episode is a must. Listen along as hosts Connor Sturniolo and Liah Argiropoulos reminisce about the beginning of Section 202 and how it got to where it is now.

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