SMITHFIELD, R.I. – What do you say to the players who have meant so much to your program after a heart-breaking loss likely ends their careers? What do you say to the players who gave all they had, even transformed themselves, for the betterment of your program at a crucial stage?
In truth, there are no words. Tim O’Shea, who has seen plenty in the world of basketball, had a hard time finding them after Bryant lost a 55-54 heart-breaker to Saint Francis in the Northeast Conference Tournament on Wednesday night. And you can’t blame him. His lack of words says nothing about him and everything about the situation.
“Obviously, I feel terrible for the seniors,” said O’Shea, a sentiment he would repeat on a few occasions during the press conference.
You can’t blame him. Finding words at a time like that is basically impossible. Not surprisingly, O’Shea said that they were inconsolable in the locker room. They know how hard they worked to get here. They know how hard it is to go out this way, dropping a game at home, against a lower seed, and one where they led by 11 in the second half.
What do you say to them?
There is nothing to say at a time like this. All of Alex Francis’ accomplishments, like finishing fifth all-time in NEC history in scoring and fourth in rebounding (and being the only player in NEC history to rank in the top five in both categories), mean nothing right now. As competitive as he is, the loss, along with him scoring just seven points with six field goal attempts, is what registers right now. And it hurts.
The accomplishments will have meaning later, when he can emotionally step back from it. But that doesn’t happen quickly, at least not for competitors. Not for someone like Francis, who grew up during his time on campus and went from a guy who put up numbers to a winner. Not for someone like Corey Maynard, who had a steady career and very capably ran the show as a senior after mostly playing off the ball for three years. Not for someone like Clay McMath, who came in thought to have a high ceiling, battled injuries and falling behind in the rotation to start 13 games as a senior. Not for someone like Tim McKinney, a terrific young man who overcame multiple devastating knee injuries in high school and understands and appreciates the opportunities – on and off the court – basketball has afforded him, even after a college career in which he barely played.
They won’t be able to step back from this one so quickly. It takes some time. And right now, it’s too close.
Bryant has come very far in the last few years. In fact, just two years ago wins were hard to come by, and now there is disappointment at losing in the conference tournament, where they had a home game for the second year in a row. In time, that will be something to take solace in. It’s also something to build on, as the team has shown success is possible here.
Francis was the linchpin of this. When he came, he instantly boosted their talent tremendously at an early point in their Division I history. O’Shea took a chance on him, and it paid off for all parties involved as he had a tremendous career and has evolved during that time. Even as better talent filled in around him, he was still the star. He was still the guy who they could get the ball to if they needed a basket. He was still the player garnering the individual honors while loving the fact that the team was winning even more than the honors.
Maynard was always a key player to this team, even though he has never been a star. From the outset, he showed a solid feel for the game, and from that he was able to make an impact right away. The staff was concerned over the years that an offer he couldn’t resist to play pro ball in his native Australia might come and that they could lose him, but he finished his whole career with a senior season that earned him third team all-conference honors.
Bryant has a bright future with its returning talent and with the cachet that the last couple of years will have in recruiting. It’s not out of the realm of possibilities that the CBI or CIT could come calling this season; last year the Bulldogs got a home game in the CBI, but this year is a different season. All of that would be little consolation, of course, but it would mean the seniors get one more chance, and a young guy like Dan Garvin, who is very talented but was playing in a high-pressure tournament game for the first time on Wednesday, gets another early chance to play in a big game.
As bright as the future is, we’re always reminded that there is no guarantee. Plenty of teams have gone far with a team of underclassmen before failing to take the next step the following year with everyone back. That, along with how hard this team worked and the game being at home, is part of why this hurts.
This team, and these seniors, accomplished a lot. O’Shea noted, “They put so much into this, and they really put us on the map as far as a Division I program in this state.” In fact, they’re on the map beyond the state, although in a local sense they are certainly part of why Rhode Island has a lot of good basketball right now.
Right now, though, those words don’t mean anything to the team, especially the seniors. They won’t for a while. Because right after a loss like the one they suffered on Wednesday night, there is nothing to say. There is only hurt to be seen and felt.