Monday, March 26, 2012

Bittersweet Sixteen

“Be true to your school now, and let your colors fly.” – The Beach Boys

An interesting thing happened to me between the Ohio Bobcats upsetting Michigan and South Florida to reach the Sweet 16 and the subsequent heartbreaking, gut wrenching, holy-crap-we-were-this-close overtime defeat at the hands of North Carolina: I went from being an Ohio University student to an Ohio University alumnus.

I have been fortunate (unfortunate?) enough to graduate a quarter early from Ohio. The release of Winter Quarter Final Grades – which took place last week after the Bobcats parlayed their #13 seed in the NCAA Tournament to a pair of Cinderella victories – were the final determinant in my educational status changing from pupil to graduate. (Basically, this means I didn’t flunk.) And while it still hasn’t quite hit me that my days as a student are over, in the immediate aftermath of Ohio’s 75-63 (OT) loss to UNC I did manage to realize just how many moments Ohio Bobcats basketball will hold in my vast collection of college memories.

These general reminiscences and recollections of which I speak are ultimately comprised of many various events, people, places and instances from college, most of which will forever be special and meaningful only to me and maybe a select group of others. I suppose if I contemplated each of them long enough, I could come away with a handful of significant “life insights” or points of wisdom, but that doesn’t really interest me. What’s more intriguing at this particular time is the connection that so many of them have to the basketball program.

As a journalism major and sports fan, I spent a great deal of my (nearly) four years in Athens watching, covering, rooting for and writing about the men’s basketball teams. I can remember the first time I watched a game from press row during my freshman year, and how the nerves forced my voice to crack while asking a question in the post-game press conference. I remember having the perfect angle on Tommy Freeman’s game-winning three-pointer to beat the Miami RedHawks my sophomore year. I remember that team’s improbable run through the Mid-American Conference Tournament, during which Armon Bassett nearly caught on fire like a character from the old NBA Jam video game. I remember the Bobcats going to the Tourney and shocking Georgetown, with D.J. Cooper’s over-the-head alley-oop to DeVaughn Washington remaining the sickest dunk I’ve ever seen.

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I remember talking to Bassett about that incredible stretch of winning the conference bid and upsetting the Hoyas; about how he knew the team would surprise some people – which was true – and how he couldn’t wait to finally settle down and be a senior the following season – which wasn’t true, as he ended up leaving the program for a myriad of reasons. I’ll remember sitting courtside in Cleveland and covering the MAC Tournament my junior year, watching Nick Kellogg’s desperation heave fall just short as the Bobcats lost to Ball State. And I’ll certainly remember this year’s team.

I’ll remember Ohio coming back from a halftime deficit to beat the RedHawks (yet again) in front of a packed house on Gary Trent Day. I’ll remember Ricardo Johnson’s flat top. I’ll remember David McKinley’s beautifully feathered hair and Nick Goff’s beard. I’ll remember Walter Offutt’s hustle and determination on both ends of the floor. I’ll remember Stevie Taylor’s energy. I’ll remember the impeccable passes thrown by Cooper, as well as the countless clutch shots he hit for this squad when they desperately needed them. I’ll somehow forget all the bad ones he took. I’ll remember a second run through the MAC Tournament and berth in the Big Dance. I’ll remember the big wins over Michigan and South Florida. And I will always remember Friday’s game against North Carolina.

I’ll remember being shocked by the Bobcats only trailing by 7 at halftime after getting down by as many as 15 early on. I’ll remember all six of Offutt’s three-pointers. I’ll remember Kellogg’s major bomb from downtown to give the ‘Cats the lead late in the game. I’ll remember Cooper’s “and-1” to give them the lead again a few moments later. I’ll remember UNC coach Roy Williams burying his hands in his face on the bench as the Bobcats kept inching ahead on the scoreboard. I’ll be forever haunted by Offutt’s missed free-throw that could have clinched the game in the waning seconds, but only without forgetting his big bucket just prior to that to knot the score and his monster game-saving stop on the defensive end immediately after. I’ll remember watching Cooper’s last-second, half-court heave clank off the rim, seemingly in slow motion, as the breath swelled up in my lungs and hung there for a few seconds. I’ll remember wishing that shot could have just gone in. I’ll always wish it could have just gone in.

That game wasn’t supposed to happen the way it did. It was supposed to be a beatdown, a massacre at the hands of the almighty, #1-seeded Tar Heels of NCAA lore. But this Bobcats team was special. This tournament was special. That game was special – to the team, to the school, and to me. In many ways, it signified my last moment as a student and first moment as an adult. And even in defeat, that’s what I’ll always remember.

The Ohio Bobcats played like men last Friday night. They grew up a little bit. I suppose it’s only fitting that I will now have to do the same.

Thanks for reading

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