Davidson: An NIT Miracle

Will BryanCorrespondent IMarch 18, 2009

It was the best of times and it was the worst of times.

I had this as the title of a blog post for weeks now. It seems that my own laziness in writing it turned out to be more serendipity than anything else.

With Davidson's regular season winding down in February, games became more drawn out, Stephen Curry became more fatigued and the impossible looked to be happening: Davidson was not only not finding a groove, they seemed to be getting worse.

All of that bad juju came to a head in Chattanooga on semifinal Sunday, where, four years prior, Davidson's perfect conference season had been shattered by UNC-Greensboro.

This time, after a fire alarm, missed defensive rebounds, poor closeout defense, and a rhythmless and motionless motion offense, Davidson went to the mat against College of Charleston for the second time this year and were effectively knocked out of the NCAA Tournament.

Davidson might lose games. In fact, Davidson does lose games. But they never lose seasons, and this season, that of the Top 25s, All-America honors, national TV coverage, standard-bearer for mid-majors, began to feel like a lost one.

Sure they had plenty of good numbers to suggest a successful campaign, but they weren't playing their best basketball in March. They had not seemed to play to win, get any better, and they certainly didn't look they were having any fun.

And then, when all of Davidson's magic had seemed to fly out the window and fans seemed to watch and imagined how they would lose instead of believing how they could win, the Wildcats pulled an NIT miracle.

With an emerging freshman forward on the bench in street clothes and the All-American as good as out the door to the NBA by every sportswriter's count, this was just going to be a formality.

"Could be Steph's last game," ESPN's Hubert Davis said. "Probably will be," Doug Gottlieb said at halftime.

The game itself was almost exciting. Then the refs got in the way. Four minutes into the second half South Carolina was already in the bonus and Davidson had three players with four fouls and two with three.

Three minutes later, South Carolina took the lead and Davidson called a timeout.

What looked like fight and desire had turned into pain and frustration yet again. It's bad enough to lose when everything is on the line. It's even worse to lose when no one even seems to care.

But then, for 12 minutes, a handful of Davidson basketball players and coaches effectively saved the 2008-2009 season, restored pride in a program quickly sliding out of national view and pulled an NIT miracle.

Coming out of the timeout, Curry hit a three. Then Andrew Lovedale got to the line, Ben Allison pulled down a monster defensive board, Bryant Barr got to the line for three shots, Curry stole the ball, and Ben Allison was fouled in transition.

After a few Curry turnovers let South Carolina draw back. Curry found Lovedale in the lane for a jumper, then hit a three.

With five minutes to go, Davidson responded to every Gamecock attack.

No one knows every single thought that went through the players and coaches minds last week.

Davidson head coach Bob McKillop described his team as "…angry, tense, irrational, disappointed … there were a lot of negative emotions." And yet while South Carolina made their fifth NIT trip in seven seasons, Davidson had so much to lose last night.

For a program that had so long reflected the philosophy and the character of its head coach, it seemed the Wildcats were not moving on to the next play, rather they weren't acting as one five instead of five ones, and they weren't playing to win nor having fun.

And that seemed to be the greatest tragedy. Books, blogs, articles, and TV segments had been dedicated to why Davidson did things the right way and why McKillop's program was one you could believe in.

Last year, on the NCAA stage, those players affirmed all of those things. But last night, in Columbia, S.C., they had to find them again for they had been lost.

So now, Davidson moves on to St. Mary's for an ESPN match-made-in-heaven between Curry and Patty Mills. Davidson could very well lose out in California or they could survive and advance to the quarterfinals.

Either way, the entire team knows that this season cannot and will not be a failure. Because on the road, and in a hostile March do-or-die environment, Davidson's players fulfilled the expectations of Davidson's program.

They weren't the expectations of CBS or ESPN or the USA Today or whoever else, but they were ones that longtime fans of the red and black have come to see year in and year out. The team is what makes every Davidson fan believe that as long as there is time on the clock, there is always hope.

And when all of the dust settles after the NCAA tournament's opening weekend, there, on Monday, will be Davidson, still playing.

Still dreaming. Still inspiring. Still believing.

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